It seems like everyone's got a solution for workout tracking, these days, and the undergrad students at Northeastern University are no different. We traveled to the bowels of the Boston school's Egan Research Center, to try the Squid Shirt that we saw back in February on for size. Our own Terrence O'Brien donned the garb, and while the current prototype has dropped much of the unwieldy wires and suction cups that gave the wearable its name, it's still a bit of a production, taking several minutes to put on with the aid of assistant academic specialist, Mark Sivak (who assured us that the student this specific model was designed for had gotten the whole thing down to a two or three minute streamlined process).
The shirt has a total of 13 EMG sensors, monitoring data from three muscle groups: the pecs, lats and delts. Every signal requires two sensors (with one attached to the hip for ground), which are ultra cheap and disposable, meaning you can just toss them away at the end of each workout session. In addition to monitoring muscle activity, a standard Polar heart rate monitor slips into a sleeve inside the shirt to keep track of your pulse. The shirt itself is machine washable, which again is good news, if you plan on working out in the thing. This is due in part to the fact that the box -- the brains of the operation -- is removable. This also means that you can use a single box to plug into different garments, which could include things like workout pants in the future.
Northeastern University Squid torso-onSee all photos
Inside the surprisingly light 3D-printed box are four AA batteries, an Arduino Nano and a custom-built filter board. The box feeds information to a handset via Bluetooth, which communicates with a PC via WiFI. At present, the app is Android only, hence the Droid RAZR in the demo video, but that's something they naturally would look to expand, should the product ever come to market. Early versions of the shirt had the phone connecting to the box via USB, but the new wireless version means that you don't have to carry the handset on your person while working out -- certainly a plus.
The shirt also has vibrating motors nestled between each pair of sensors -- though they weren't ready for our demo. According to Sivak, the researchers are in the process of deciding whether the cellphone vibrators would give the wearer positive or negative feedback, in order to either entice or correct the user while working out. The application features two different modes -- home and gym, tailored to different workout methods. The information is viewable in a calendar format on the site, so the user can monitor the information over time. For now, reps are simply counted down in seconds, because the sensors need to be manually calibrated for each person who wears it, though, the team is currently working on an algorithm to automate the process. We were shown a rough graphing app that allows you to see raw signal data coming in from the EMG pads, and reps were highlighted with drastic spikes in the readings. For now though, measurements like "intensity" are graphed in averaged out bars for the right and left arm. As a bonus, the individual right and left measurements allow you to monitor symmetry, a feature that could have other health applications in the case of stroke victims, who have lost strength on one side of their body.
Naturally, the whole thing is still in the early testing phase, which helps explain the roughly sew-on patches and hair-pulling electrode pads. Sivak says the University is interested in using the technology to monitor its athletes and teams for off-season training. Eventually a coach or trainer mode would allow routines to be pushed to participating players, and once the automatic calibration system is in place Squid could ensure that competitors perform the prescribed number of sets and reps.