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A Unique Perspective
October 31, 2012

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A device designed to monitor astronaut health now tracks the vital signs of athletes and soldiers.

Have you ever felt nauseous reading a book in the back seat of a car? Or woken from a deep sleep feeling disoriented, unsure which way is up? Momentary mixups like these happen when the sensory systems that track the body’s orientation in space become confused.

A condition like motion sickness presents a significant challenge to astronauts in space. Because human sensory systems use the pull of gravity to help determine orientation, astronauts onboard the International Space Station tend to experience a period of confusion before their bodies can adapt to the new circumstances, causing everything from mild disorientation to severe vomiting.

Since astronauts cannot afford to be distracted or incapacitated during critical missions, NASA has explored various means for preventing motion sickness in space, including a range of drug treatments. Many effective drugs, however, cause undesirable side effects such as drowsiness, making their use impractical.

A Balanced Approach

William Toscano, a research scientist at Ames Research Center, and his NASA colleague Patricia Cowings have developed a different approach: Utilizing biofeedback training methods, the pair can teach astronauts, military pilots, and others susceptible to motion sickness to self-regulate their own physiological responses and suppress the unpleasant symptoms.

This NASA-patented method invented by Cowings has been shown to yield benefits for 85 percent of those who undergo the training—including 65 percent who are able to suppress motion-sickness symptoms entirely.

In order to gather data for their research, Toscano and Cowings needed a practical solution for monitoring the vital signs of test subjects. Zephyr Technology, a company in Annapolis, Maryland, proved to have the device the NASA researchers were looking for. Zephyr’s BioHarness is a narrow fabric band worn around the upper torso that is capable of providing physiological status monitoring for people in any condition or environment. NASA partnered with Zyphyr to implement the device in studies of motion sickness, tracking vital signs in strenuous conditions in order to understand the phenomenon.

Information in the Field

While the Ames researchers benefited from the use of Zephyr’s devices, the company also came away with significant NASA contributions. “NASA’s depth of experience in physiology and knowledge of what’s been tried before is just massive for a small company like ours,” says Brian Russell, Zephyr’s CEO.

Zephyr’s BioHarness is now a market-leading technology. Through its smart fabric sensors, the BioHarness measures heart rate and heart rate variability, provides a heart electrocardiogram, and monitors breathing, skin temperature, motion (including speed and distance), and posture. The device can either store this data for later retrieval or transmit it wirelessly to be displayed and analyzed by Zephyr’s OmniSense software.

“If you’re a doctor, a military commander, a medic, or a sports coach, our data needs to tell you something that’s useful,” Russell explains.

Working with the U.S. Special Forces, Zephyr tailored its PSM system for military applications, including determining the fitness of soldiers both in training and on the battlefield, and the company also provides sensors for first responders. The BioHarness continuously transmits data to the rescue vehicle and field hospital so that when the injured soldier arrives, doctors are up-to-date on the patient’s medical status.

Professional sports teams in every major sport use the BioHarness to support and monitor the effectiveness of training regimens. The data delivered by the system helps trainers recognize when an athlete might be suffering from dehydration or excessive fatigue, or whether the athlete is at risk for heat stroke—a condition that can result in death during training.

Zephyr™, BioHarness™, and OmniSense™ are trademarks of Zephyr Technology.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2011.

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Zephyr’s consumer device, the HxM, monitors heart rate, speed, and distance for everyday fitness training.
Zephyr’s consumer device, the HxM, monitors heart rate, speed, and distance for everyday fitness training.
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In 2012, sports apparel and equipment manufacturer Under Armour released its E39 shirt, which incorporates the Zephyr BioHarness.
In 2012, sports apparel and equipment manufacturer Under Armour released its E39 shirt, which incorporates the Zephyr BioHarness. During the recent NFL combines, college football players hoping to be drafted by pro teams wore the shirts during various physical tests.
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Loura Hall