Japanese Kirigami paper art inspired a new kind of wearable heart sensor

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Everyone is familiar with origami, the Japanese art of folding squares of paper into often cute and adorable shapes. But throw in a few scissors with this folding and you’ve essentially got 3D origami: kirigami. It is believed that this ancient Asian art form originated as a means of honoring the gods and one’s ancestors. Now, in the 21st century, scientists are harnessing it to inspire modern engineering and healthcare. Case in point: A team of Japanese researchers used cutting and folding techniques pioneered by kirigami to create a new type of wearable heart sensor that can move with the human body with great flexibility and breathability when attached . The new cardiac sensor, described tuesday in the magazine Journal of Applied Physicsaims to transform the future of medical monitoring devices into something that fits more easily into our daily lives.

In recent years, scientists have turned to kirigami to make robots that can grab objects more efficientlyand manufacture sensors which can detect injuries in real time. Although there are a plethora of wearable gadgets on the market that can track heart rate and electrical activity, it is difficult to ensure that they withstand changing conditions and do not create discomfort for users. Kuniharu Takei, an electrical engineer at Osaka Prefecture University who is leading the new study, told The Daily Beast in an email.

To overcome these challenges, Takei and his team took a rigid film material called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and cut and bent it into a shape they found to be the optimal ratio of stretch and lightness. They integrated the material with electrodes that could be used to sense heart activity – and thus a heart sensor was born.

Healthy volunteers put on the new heart sensor to put it to the test, wearing it during daily movements like walking or working at a desk. They found that the sensor worked best when there wasn’t too much background noise, such as when someone was at rest. But it still picked up electrical activity quite accurately and was stable even during exercise. The heart sensor was also able to wirelessly transmit heart rate data without any issues. The researchers even developed and tested a smartphone app that could allow users to easily track these readings on their own.

Takei and his team think the main uses for the new sensor could be for healthcare providers to remotely monitor patients with heart conditions that cause abnormal or irregular electrical activity. But he warned that the sensor is still a work in progress. It cannot go along with an ECG machine that you might find in a hospital.

“We plan to integrate several sensors with [our] electrocardiogram sensor,” he said. “By analyzing multiple sensor outputs and their correlation, we would like to find the early stage of the disease and also use telemedicine applications.”

Takei anticipates that adding more sensors might hamper the sensor’s flexibility and comfortable design, but his team is tinkering with some workarounds. Once a complete prototype is available, it could serve as an example of how ancient art forms could enhance the effectiveness and application of other types of modern technologies.

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