When IndyCar champ Tony Kanaan takes the wheel of his race car, his performance depends on more than just driving skill. Forces of up to 5 Gs — five times the force of gravity — push on his bones as he whips around turns, driving at speeds as fast as 220 mph in pursuit of his next win, so he needs to be in the right shape to handle the road.
Those conditions put a ton of pressure — physical and psychological — on the driver. After a few races last season, Kanaan’s team noticed he was dealing with those stressors in a very specific way: gripping the steering wheel way too hard.
“My crew was asking me, ‘Why are you squeezing the steering wheel so hard?'” Kanaan said in a phone interview. “‘Why are you wasting your energy?'” He was able to remedy the problem quickly once it was pointed out, freeing up valuable effort better spent elsewhere.
Imagine if your Fitbit’s tracking power was amped up and spread out across your whole torso.
Kanaan’s team was only able to notice his hard grip after analyzing electromyogram (EMG) readings, which measures the electrical activity of muscles. And they didn’t get that data from an Apple Watch or Fitbit, but instead from a highly sophisticated wearable: a race shirt made out of “biosensing” fabric. The fabric, called Hitoe, can pick up the electrical signals produced by his body and convert them to data, including heart rate, electrocardiogram (aka ECG, which measures heart activity), the aforementioned EMG, and more.
The data helps Kanaan fine-tune his body’s performance the same way his crew adjusts his car. Now, imagine that same tech adopted widely, with patients wearing biosensing clothes so doctors can monitor patients’ recovery in real time. That’s the promise of Hitoe.
But first it needs to prove itself with IndyCar.
Training with tracking power
Kanaan is the only driver on the IndyCar circuit who has access to Hitoe. That’s thanks to his sponsor, NTT Data, a subsidiary of Japanese tech conglomerate, NTT (probably best known for the wireless carrier NTT Docomo, another subsidiary).
“When they introduced the shirt, I was like, whoa,” said Kanaan. “My biggest challenge has always been to figure out how to feel better in the car — and I don’t get to drive it every day. So what can I do to find out how to be a better fit to drive the car?”
Imagine if your Fitbit’s tracking power was amped up and spread out across your whole torso. Using those insights, Kanaan and his team develop workout regimens so he can push his body to mimic the same conditions he’ll face in the cockpit of his race car. So, if Kanaan’s heart rate pumps up to 160 beats per minute (bpm) in the middle of a race, his trainer will push his performance up to that same level in the gym.
“I use it all the time outside the car,” said Kanaan. “The shirt doesn’t give me more talent — you’re not gonna put it on and become Superman or LeBron James.” But it does help him find the best ways he can push his performance to new levels.
One layer, lots of insights
Hitoe comes from a Japanese term that means “one layer,” because the sensors are integrated directly into a nanofiber fabric. The design was created by NTT and Toray Industries, a global textile manufacturer.
The fabric’s ability to track heart rate and ECG information is a big deal for Kanaan. His car is packed with state-of-the-art equipment to monitor its performance — but the Hitoe tech is the first time he has ever been able to track his own body in real time, because the signal from other monitors interfered with the telemetry system of the car.
“When they introduced the shirt, I was like, whoa.” – Tony Kanaan
This is the third season Kanaan is wearing the Hitoe shirt. The first year, the tech was applied in patches sewn on to Kanaan’s Nomex fireproof racing suits, which all drivers are required to wear.
Those sewn-on patches on the fire suit were just the start.
“The project matured with Tony because he found a lot more value with us exploring his muscle activity,” said Adam Nelson, the VP of Healthcare and Life Sciences for NTT Data. Nelson said the focus of the project was on capturing even more specific muscle-performance data in 2016, with a complicated system that fed the data collected from Kanaan’s body into the same system that reported how his car was performance.
Kanaan is wearing an advanced version of the Hitoe shirt for the 2017 IndyCar season, his 20th year in the sport, which is now underway. Instead of only using patches sewn into his fire suit, the shirt has been “dyed” with the sensor tech, putting it closer to his skin for more complete coverage.
Off the track
Giving champion race car drivers a performance edge isn’t the only reason NTT developed Hitoe. Nelson and his team have much larger ambitions for the smart fabric.
“We’ve always called our experiment from track to treatment, because what we’re learning on the track we want to bring out into the healthcare system,” he said.
The fabric’s potential for physical therapy and outpatient recovery could be its best use. Nelson imagines Hitoe being given to patients to make recovery from injury and surgery a more convenient experience, since the data it collects can be monitored remotely from anywhere.
Insurance companies already give customers the option of using smart devices like the Apple Watch to gain more insights about their health, which could personalize plans and cut premium costs, though more connectivity and data exacerbate privacy concerns.
Kanaan is excited to be part of the project to develop the Hitoe system beyond just the benefits he’ll reap on the track from the data collection.
“For me, the biggest thing is to be able to help people outside racing, with rehab and health care,” he said. “I lost my dad to cancer, and I was in with him in the hospital for four years so I know how depressing that can be.”
Hitoe purely an IndyCar tech for now — but if NTT has its way, nanofiber shirts will eventually be tracking the health of people everywhere. Just be sure that you keep your car’s speed a tad under 200 mph once you start rocking yours.