Bionics, in layman’s terms, refers to anything that has to do with artificial body parts, usually with a specific focus on restoring or maintaining natural physiological functions. The definition is not restricted to replaceable organic body parts, so long as the augmentation provides an overall boost to what the user can do.
As such, bionic clothing falls under the same category. But what in the world is bionic clothing anyway? And how could these wearable, possibly fashionable, components aid in helping us function better as humans?
What is Bionic Clothing?
Bionic clothing is, as per our definition, highly advanced clothing infused with technology designed to aid normal human functions in some way. This is either by enhancing the already normal capabilities of a person or providing augmentations that replicate natural features of the human body that would have otherwise been inaccessible to the user.
For example, clothes that provide artificial muscle activation aimed at patients currently in the process of physical rehabilitation can be considered bionic clothing.
Reversely, if a feature provided by a piece of advanced wearable tech is not really related to the human body’s normal functions in any way, we cannot consider it bionic clothing. For instance, jackets that connect via Bluetooth to act as a smartphone access interface are NOT considered bionic clothing. Garments that provide monitoring features only are also excluded from the definition.
What Can Bionic Clothing (Theoretically) Do?
Depictions of bionic clothing in popular media aside, here are a few things that bionic clothing should be able to do:
- Blood circulation control – using dynamic pressure adjustability, a piece of bionic clothing can provide additional external control of blood circulation as the situation calls for it. For example, if the user has blood pressure issues, or if a specific body part requires either increased or reduced blood flow.
- Re-train injured muscles – by providing a plethora of additional stimuli to targeted muscle groups, someone who previously suffered from a stroke, for instance, could be aided with a bionic clothing set. The actual efficacy would predictably be limited, but it would at least still be a nudge in the right direction and could provide a noticeable boost in rehabilitation speed (if recovery is possible).
- Artificial nerve activation – a somewhat more direct manner of providing physiological function to bionic clothing is to give it a way of smartly zapping your muscles directly for various purposes (artificial reflex, motion adjustment, motion range optimization, among others). The keyword here is “smartly”. It should be part of an integrated system that constantly measures and analyzes your body activity so that the nerve activations are timed correctly.
- Increase maximum limb strength (a bit) – on the more theoretical side, bionic clothing could also provide enhance overall limb strength. Don’t expect Gantz suit levels of usability, though, as it practically would not be able to match any exoskeletal power suits currently in existence.
- Increase maximum muscular endurance (a bit) – speaking of exoskeletal prostheses, bionic clothing can also theoretically lessen the overall burden on the muscles when they are in use. Again, don’t expect miracles for this one. At best, were at talking about a few milligrams less of lactic acid buildup during the heaviest physical activity.
- Reduce potential body damage and physical strain – similar to the previous advantage, the same features could also work in (slightly) protecting the rest of your body from internal harm and fatigue that could cause injuries.
Where Are All the Bionic Clothing Today?
There are a few technical candidates partially fit the features and objectives we listed earlier. For instance, the Nadi X Smart Yoga Pants are designed to provide haptic feedback in the form of vibration to parts of the body not positioned correctly for the pose you are trying to do. However, its features are limited only to the pre-set poses of the accompanying app and do not provide any level of body function assistance at all.
At the moment, there is only one notable product/invention that can be truly classified as a bionic clothing product. It ticks all of the category checkboxes and is the only one that we can discuss in considerable detail. This is none other than the Neural Sleeve, developed by CIONIC, which is primarily designed as a muscular augmentation tool for people with neurological disorders.
According to its official description, it is a strap-on wearable device that completely wraps around the limb that you to work with. After an extensive initial calibration that studies the user’s regular movements, an algorithm is used in tandem with controlled electric stimulations to generate the necessary stimuli to parts of the body the user intends to move. Then, as the Neural Sleeve gets used more, additional user data is fed into the system via tracking sensors that adjust and optimize the algorithms further to deliver even more precise electrical stimulation.
As mentioned earlier, functional disability and mobility issues stemming from neurological disorders or brain-related accidents are the main focus of the Neural Sleeve. If you recently suffered from a stroke, for example, and are currently in the process of rehabilitation, this product can provide a temporary signaling network, if you will. The direct stimulation of the parts dissociated from the brain would then theoretically experience accelerated recovery, re-training them not just more quickly, but potentially far more efficiently.
During a clinical trial conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area in November 2021, the Neural Sleeve was able to provide a 143% improvement in restoring leg gait to the participants. The movement challenge in question was the foot drop, which is described as the difficulty in lifting the front part of the foot as it treads along. And it has been shown that with the muscle electrical stimulation system, the feet are able to swing better, and have a gait cycle that won’t provide too much pressure on either side of the body.
Why are Powered Exoskeletons Not Considered Bionic Clothing?
Our definition requires that the device in question should be a piece of garment that is wearable in the same manner as typical clothing. Therefore, unless they’re very high-tech science-fiction-inspired suits like the ones worn by Tony Stark and Gantz characters, we don’t generally refer to them as bionic clothing. If anything, exoskeleton suits like the ones built by Ekso Bionics would probably classify better as bionic limbs, since a significant portion of its design also involves mechatronic components.
What Can Bionic Clothing Do in the Next Few Years?
To be honest, we really have no idea. Given the rather limited development space that bionic clothing has right now, it is unknown whether a breakthrough concept could widen horizons in the near future. After all, without further miniaturization of the most advanced electronics, the choice would usually only land on either using bionic body parts or external support systems not really considered “clothing”.
At the very least, though, the Neural Sleeve shows us that there are still ideas that can be fully realized despite our current technological limitations. So it is perhaps just a matter of time before some other bionic clothing concept can make it past the theoretical stage.