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Strategic Research Initiatives

Center for Wearable Intelligent Technology (WIT)

Elizabeth T. Hsiao-Wecksler, SungWoo Nam: Mechanical Science and Engineering


Our vision is to create a multidisciplinary, multi-institute, international-scale Center for Wearable Intelligent Technology, i.e., the “WIT Center”, which will be positioned at Illinois. The inclusion of ‘intelligent’ emphasizes that the Center’s scope will expand beyond the current state of ‘smart’ wearable devices, which predominantly focus on monitoring or activity tracking (e.g., Apple Watch, Polar heart rate monitors). Wearable intelligent technology (WIT) systems will not only track but will adapt their structure or function to assist the wearer autonomously and without need for intervention by the wearer or third party. These discreet and integrated next-generation devices and/or apparel will seamlessly interact with the wearer to improve human health, wellness or performance based on sound research supported by user-centered design, biomechanics, and social & behavioral science foundations.

In order to realize these WIT systems, advances in basic and applied research in the following thrust areas are needed: multi-modal durable biosensors; flexible adaptive actuators; low power systems; and integrated data analytics. Overarching themes are user-centered empathic design, miniaturization of hardware, systems engineering (systems integration, manufacturing, and controls), and intelligence (Fig. 1). High impact/high-risk testbeds will serve as a technology pull to inspire basic and applied research projects to address future needs, and will be used to demonstrate research project outcomes into WIT systems that address wearer health, wellness, or performance. Sample testbeds relate to anxiety & stress, personal thermoregulation, and diabetes.

Substantial industry and consumer interest exist in wearable technology due to advances in the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, personalized healthcare, workplace ergonomics and safety, consumer and professional sports, and robotics. Current commercial devices tend to focus on activity tracking (wristbands, smartwatches, smart clothing) or entertainment (head-mounted displays, ear-worn devices). Global spending on such devices is expected to approach $52B in 2020 and $63B in 2021. Activity tracking devices focus on wearer data analytics. Such data are used for personal health and performance tracking (e.g., Nike+ shoes, Fitbit) or remote patient monitoring (e.g., Donjoy X4 Smart Knee Brace). However, fitness trackers and smartwatches experience high abandonment rates of ~30%, which highlights the need to develop technologies that are user-centered and respond to users’ functional and emotional needs to ensure adoption and continued use. Wearable intelligent technology, which utilizes monitored data to provide control signals to make autonomous decisions for an active intervention system, will take this field to the next generation. Miniaturization of components helps make devices discreet, which will increase user adoption and ensure continued use. Handling of data (machine learning, AI, security, privacy) will be critical. Applications related to the social and behavioral sciences can open new areas. These wearable intelligent technologies will provide opportunities to improve physical and psychological health and wellness.

Our long-range vision is to establish and foster a collaborative multidisciplinary and multi-institute Center to address the seamless integration of intelligent, adaptive, user-centered systems for improving human health or performance. This Center community will engage faculty and students from across UIUC and other universities (national and international) and partners from federal funding agencies, national labs, military, industry (e.g., consumer electronics, health and fitness, sports equipment or professional teams), and university units (e.g., Seibel Center for Design, DRES, Division of Athletics, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Applied Research Institute). The WIT center will solidify Illinois’ position as the national leader in research/development and education of the next generation of leaders in the future of wearable intelligent technology.