Seismic, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup formerly known as Superflex, today unveiled its Powered Clothing line. And the company wants you to know: this is not an exoskeleton.
Seismic CEO and co-founder Rich Mahoney, well-respected in robotics circles, says the Powered Clothing “fuses discreet robotics with textiles” to act as an extension of the human body. Seismic says this will assist people with everyday activities, including carrying and lifting items, hiking, standing up, extending standing, sitting down, walking and more. Mahoney tells The Robot Report some beta users even wore the Powered Clothing while playing golf.
Reacting to the body’s natural movements, the Powered Clothing suit uses tiny motors, which Seismic calls “robotic muscles,” to provide up to 30 watts of power to each hip and the lower back. The suit weighs 5.5 lbs and is a little bulky in the “strength layer” on the outer legs that house the batteries. Mahoney tells The Robot Report Seismic Powered Clothing could become smaller when production gets closer, which the company hopes will occur in limited fashion in 2019. “It can’t feel like a medical device,” Mahoney acknowledges.
The clothing emits about 40 decibels of sound, which Seismic wants you to know is “less than a whisper.” While that is quiet, a constant noise could be an annoyance, depending on the user and activity. Mahoney says the Seismic Powered Clothing can be worn as either a base layer underneath clothes or be worn like activewear at a gym.
There are three muscle patches (left, right and lower back) that each have an integrated force sensor and a lithium-ion battery that lasts about eight hours. The batteries can be removed for changing or charging. The lower back patch also has a processor to control the entire suit and process the real-time data and activity tracking (more on that in a moment). Seismic Powered Clothing also has three IMUs, temperature sensors, and Bluetooth, LTE, and WiFi connectivity.
Seismic initially wants to help people who are generally healthy and independent, but could use a little extra support in their core. The technology was originally developed at SRI International for a DARPA-funded program to reduce injury risk and enhance soldier endurance.
“We’ve watched technology evolve and have not seen products become available,” Mahoney says. “It’s still hard, but we’re interested in changing people’s perspective on what’s possible with robotics. This product can be very personal and available sooner than people realize.”
Is Seismic Powered Clothing an exoskeleton?
Seismic Powered Clothing essentially functions as a consumer exoskeleton, but Mahoney and company will not refer to it as such. Part of this is due to the fact Seismic created something less bulky than a typical exoskeleton. The exoskeleton market is still nascent and has not taken off like many expected. And the term “exoskeleton” is not exactly sexy for the activewear market, which Morgan Stanley said reached $97 billion in sales in 2015.
“We understood early on that everyone wears clothing, but nobody wears robots,” he says. “We want to bring new functionality to clothing, but maintain that relationship of comfort, functionality and emotion.”
Several consumer robotics companies failed recently, namely Jibo and Mayfield Robotics. Perhaps this is another reason why Seismic is positioning itself as an apparel company. Mahoney knows the key to any product is the value it provides relative to the cost. He says pricing will be inline with designer-grade apparel. He adds that initially the Powered Clothing will be available in limited placement. Large production runs will help drive down the cost, and Seismic is still looking for a manufacturing partner to help it scale.
“This is not designed to make you run faster or jump further. It is designed for everyday people to add extra support,” he says. “We focused on this design first because of mobility, which is a huge need for the aging population, people with back injuries or sports injuries, or people who are on their feet all day for work.”
Seismic raised $22.5 million in funding since it spun out of SRI International in 2015. Its lead investor, Global Brain Ventures, is based in Japan, where an aging population is a major problem.
Seismic Powered Clothing tracks wearer data
The suit can track a lot of a wearer’s activity, including the wearer’s posture and when the wearer stands up, sits down, etc. It automatically understands the movement of the wearer and automatically adjusts the power assistance based on known programming.
Seismic, which rebranded in August 2018 and was originally known as Superflex, recently acquired the intellectual property (IP) of Lumo Bodytech, a motion science company known for its posture-correcting and fitness devices. Lumo’s legacy products have been discontinued, Mahoney says, but its machine learning algorithm lives on and will help Seismic better control its suit and tailor the experience to each wearer.
“Our machine-learning and data science work has already surfaced some very key insights on how people move their bodies in everyday activities like sitting, standing and walking,” Mahoney said at the time of the acquisition. “Lumo’s IP will strengthen our existing capability to create a symbiotic user experience through data on the quality of movement.”
“The software will recognize who is wearing it based on how you’re moving,” Mahoney said, referring to how the machine learning will help down the road. “Someone else could put your suit on and the suit will recognize it is someone different based on movement.”
Seismic Powered Clothing will have a dashboard that tracks all this data in real-time, but wearers will have to pay to access the information. Mahoney said this approach is similar to the robotics as a service (RaaS) model many robotics companies employ.
“Imagine a suit you’ve worn for 10 years and how much it’ll learn about you,” Mahoney says.
Collecting data about your users opens up privacy concerns, of course. “We need to use state-of-the-art security practices that are available for any IOT-enabled product,” Mahoney says. “We are taking in all those requirements and building those into our system. Data will be valuable to many different industries, but we’re not doing anything with the data at first until we understand the value it provides.”
Multidisciplinary environment on steroids
How do you bring new functionality to clothing such as muscle strength and core mobility while still maintaining the relationship with what you wear in terms of comfort, aesthetics, an emotion? For Seismic, the “symbiosis” user experience extends to their workroom.
The Robot Report visited Seismic’s office in Menlo Park, Calif. last week. And in a development space that is half fashion design and half electromechanical robotics, employees are constantly interacting and feeding off of one another to create something that fuses apparel and robotics. Seismic has assembled a team of experts in textile innovation, robotics, biomechanics, and AI that are all working on the suit together, putting their stamp on its look, feel, control, and user experience.
“We are designing two mass-produced types of products – consumer electronics and apparel – and they are both so different in terms of process, documentation, and language. So we have to work on documenting what we are doing from a power clothing point of view and create company processes and culture around that perspective,” says Mahoney. “There is no meeting of two or three people here. When we are working on a system, we need 10 people in the room and we need them all to be talking to one another.”
Future applications for Seismic Powered Clothing
Seismic’s initial value proposition is strength and movement assistance, for everyday activities, but the team is thinking about how the data it collects can open up new markets in the future.
“We’re looking at anyone who can get value from this,” Mahoney admits. “We do have some early work looking at applications for muscular dystrophy, which will be the first medical area for kids’ day-to-day life that we look at.”
Seismic Power Clothing currently is designed for adults, but Mahoney said that will change, too. He also talks about extending the Powered Clothing down to the knees and ankles and up to the shoulders and arms. Professional sports was another market briefly discussed as athletes could potentially benefit from some of the activity data the suit tracks.
“Our customers are people with a body who wear clothes,” Mahoney quips.
Aimee Kalnoskas, Editor, EEWorld, a sister publication of The Robot Report, contributed to this story.