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Electronic underwear sensitive to fluctuations in the wearer's heart rate has been developed by the Philips Research facility in Aachen, Germany.

The garment will automatically call emergency services when necessary, for example if the wearer suffers a cardiac arrest. This represents a considerable advance on the mobile phones which tell you when you're having a heart attack, as you don't have to hold the underwear in front of your heart for it to work. It also represents a step up from the current portable elctrocardiograms, as it does not require electrodes covered with electrolytic gel to be stuck to the wearer's skin. These can be uncomfortable if worn for long.

The device uses sensors woven into the fabric of the underwear. These detect electrical fluctuations on the skin, which are used to tell how rapidly and with what force the heart is beating. It also records activity and stress levels, both important factors in determining a person's risk of a heart attack. However, an obstacle for the developers is the need for software to distinguish between increased heart rates due to stress or physical activity.

The reasoning behind sticking a monitor into underwear is twofold. Firstly, it is not intrusive or noticeable - so-called "Ambient Intelligence" in which electronics do not intrude on the users' everyday lives. Secondly, the sensors must remain in contact with the skin and tight-fitting underwear allows this.

The British Heart Foundation welcomes the development, but suggests that trials are needed to identify any unforeseen problems. These are being planned, says project leader Koen Joosse. ®

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