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New center proposes intelligent wearables to improve quality of life

7/17/2020

Taylor Tucker

The new Center for Wearable Intelligent Technologies (WIT), led by MechSE professor and principal investigator Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, has been enacted to explore and develop wearable sensor technologies that, combined with multimodal data, can improve human health, wellness, or performance.

Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler
Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler
“Our vision is to support the development of a multi-campus, international-scale Center for Wearable Intelligent Technologies that would be positioned at Illinois,” Hsiao-Wecksler said. “The inclusion of ‘intelligent’ emphasizes that the center’s scope will expand beyond the current state of ‘smart’ devices, which predominantly focus on monitoring or tracking activity.” 

If a FitBit represents the typical “smart” wearable device currently available, a soft robotic exoskeleton is an example of the new class of devices toward which the WIT Center hopes to work. Intelligent wearable systems are proposed to not only track the user’s motion but also adapt their structure or function autonomously to seamlessly interact with and assist the user without need for intervention.

SungWoo Nam
SungWoo Nam
Hsiao-Wecksler and MechSE associate professor SungWoo Nam (director and assistant director, respectively) pitched a proposal for a wearable technology center as part of Illinois’ 2019 Investment for Growth competition. Although their proposal was not selected, more than a dozen department heads and institute directors across campus identified faculty with interest in being part of such a center. 

The diverse faculty now involved with the WIT Center represent departments such as MechSE, MatSE, ISE, ECE, Mathematics, Art & Design, and Kinesiology. They are able to combine a wide range of expertise and interests toward designing technologies within three proposed test beds: personal thermoregulation, anxiety mitigation, and diabetes prevention. Several faculty have already established a wide scope of work within the center: to develop soft, flexible, multimodal sensor arrays; to design soft and compliant actuators, especially those that use fluid power such as pneumatics; to use machine learning approaches to analyze and detect differences in movement behaviors; incorporate use of empathic user-centered design throughout the design process; to use virtual reality and moving platforms to elicit and detect responses to varied physical and emotional stressors; and to study affective responses to physical activity.

Research thrusts and possible project foci (outer) and overarching themes (inner) of the WIT Center.
Research thrusts and possible project foci (outer) and overarching themes (inner) of the WIT Center.
Hsiao-Wecksler and Nam are currently building a community of researchers and stakeholders and refining the scope of the WIT Center. 

“We are in the midst of identifying synergies and scalable activities that will form the basis of a viable center and support compelling future national and international center-level proposals,” Hsiao-Wecksler said.

Now seeking funding from the Zhejiang University-University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Institute’s Joint Research Center program, the new center hopes to support collaborative teams who will explore the basic and applied research thrust areas and testbeds outlined in the graphic (at right). 

Having previously secured seed funding for its first year of community-building activities from The Grainger College of Engineering Strategic Research Initiative Program, the new center is already hard at work. A half-day zoom workshop co-hosted by the WIT Center and the Center for Social and Behavioral Sciences (CSBS) was held in June to identify high-impact social and behavioral sciences testbeds. Two target areas that emerged from the workshop, during which 24 Illinois faculty shared research expertise and interests, were the detection and mitigation of anxiety due to external stressors and the thermoregulation of abnormal body temperature conditions.

As it continues to move forward with funding and proposals, the WIT Center also plans to hold a symposium during the Fall 2020 semester and to establish monthly activities such as interactive workshops and seminars. Undergraduates interested in participating in research projects are encouraged to reach out to Hsiao-Wecksler or Nam.