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Researchers Discuss the Future of Bio-Integrated Technology

“The Networked Body” took place Tuesday, May 16

Audience member Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern, asks a question.Audience member Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern, asks a question.
C.D. Mote, president of the National Academy of Engineering, welcomes guests to the symposium.C.D. Mote, president of the National Academy of Engineering, welcomes guests to the symposium.
Dean Julio M. Ottino introduces "The Networked Body" symposium at the James L. Allen Center.Dean Julio M. Ottino introduces "The Networked Body" symposium at the James L. Allen Center.
Sports panel: Jeff Mjaanes, J-K Davis, Bobby Basham, and moderator Robert WolcottSports panel: Jeff Mjaanes, J-K Davis, Bobby Basham, and moderator Robert Wolcott
Professor John Rogers and Dean Julio M. Ottino mingle with guests at the post-symposium reception.Professor John Rogers and Dean Julio M. Ottino mingle with guests at the post-symposium reception.
Guests at the demo session feel different textures on one of Tanvas' haptics technology devices.Guests at the demo session feel different textures on one of Tanvas' haptics technology devices.
Showcased during the demo session, Wearifi makes miniaturized, biocompatible communication devices.Showcased during the demo session, Wearifi makes miniaturized, biocompatible communication devices.
A guest at the demo session tests Tanvas's T-Pad phone, which uses ultrasonic signals to give a flat screen textureA guest at the demo session tests Tanvas's T-Pad phone, which uses ultrasonic signals to give a flat screen texture

A prematurely born baby often has a fragile health status, with an increased risk of complications. To monitor the baby’s temperature, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate, doctors cover the baby with various sticky pads or cuffs with wires that connect the it to machines. Not only can the sticky tape damage the newborn’s delicate skin, but the invasion of wires impedes its natural movement and frustrates mother/child interactions.

“This is not good from an engineering standpoint,” said Northwestern Engineering’s John Rogers. “We want to get rid of the wires.”

As a part of a symposium co-hosted by Northwestern Engineering and the National Academy of Engineering, Rogers presented his work to replace wires with wireless electronic data “temporary tattoos.” Called “The Networked Body: How Wearables and Bio-Integrated Electronics Will Impact Our Future,” the event took place Tuesday, May 16 in the James L. Allen Center.

During the public symposium, researchers from academia, athletics, and industry discussed advances in wearable and bio-integrated technologies and the sports, health, and wellness areas they promise to impact. 

“It’s an honor to host this event,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern Engineering. “The speakers we have are all leaders in their fields — in academia and industry.”

John Rogers“The topic of bio-integrated technology is very exciting,” said C.D. Mote, president of the National Academy of Engineering, “Attendance today ranks among the highest of all our symposiums, so that shows you the level of interest in this topic.”

Rogers, a pioneer in the field of wearable electronics, delivered the opening lecture. In his talk “Electronics for the Human Body,” Rogers discussed his work at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine. The Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurological Surgery, Rogers develops bio-integrated technologies, which fall into three categories: soft, tattoo-like electronic sensors; millimeter-scale wireless wearables; and skin-integrated microfluidic systems.

Although wearable fitness monitors are ubiquitous today, Rogers said the technology is “still primitive.” “They are rigid blocks of technology clumsily attached to the body,” he said. “They haven’t solved the integration problem.”

Similar to a temporary tattoo, Rogers’ “epidermal electronics” are ultra-thin, ultra-soft, and waterproof. Not only are they comfortable to wear, but they can produce clinically relevant measurements. By placing one tattoo on a baby’s chest and another on its foot, for example, doctors can monitor functions in the baby’s entire body.

Preventing concussions

David CamarilloDavid Camarillo, the Tashia and John Morgridge Faculty Scholar at Stanford University, presented his work to monitor and potentially prevent concussions. His team designs smart biomedical devices that can measure the biomechanics involved in concussions with aims of developing equipment, such as better helmets, to reduce brain injuries.

Camarillo measures vibrations that occur in the head and the angle the brain moves during impact with a series of sensors places on the face, head, and neck and inside a mouth guard.

“We want to understand the mechanisms that lead to injury,” he said. “Using an individual sensor isn’t accurate, but a network of sensors gets us closer.”

In his studies, Camarillo discovered that “bigger is better” when it comes to helmets that could prevent brain injuries. As an example, he presented the Hövding, a European bicycling helmet that is essentially an airbag that surrounds the entire head, neck, and jaw. His team tested the Hövding to find that it did work, but Camarillo thinks that a helmet filled with fluid, rather than air, might be even more effective, because the fluid dissipates energy and prevents the head from rebounding.

“These solutions could eliminate a lot of concussions, if done properly,” Camarillo said.

Sports report

Jeff MjaanesRobert Wolcott, co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network, moderated a panel about wearable technologies in sports. Including representatives from the Chicago Cubs, Gatorade, and Northwestern sports medicine, the panel discussed challenges and opportunities for integrating wearable technologies into athletics.

More sports teams are encouraging their athletes to wear trackers to monitor sleep, hydration, and heart rate. Once analyzed, the collected data can help experts give individualized recommendations to athletes about how to adjust their behaviors to improve performance and recovery.

John-Kyle Davis, research scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, said that although wearable technology offers several benefits, some athletes are concerned about privacy issues. “Some athletes don’t want to be monitored,” Davis said. “You could have a great recovery plan, but not all athletics want that.”

Bobby Basham, assistant director of minor league operations for the Chicago Cubs, however, said that younger athletes are more accustomed to wearable technologies and have come to expect and want fitness monitoring and data collection. Anything that can help athletes become more successful and have longer careers is welcomed in the community.

“Our goal is to help our guys be as good as they can possibly be,” Basham said. “We want to help them maintain a long career.”

Jeff Mjaanes, Northwestern’s director of intercollegiate and health service sports medicine and head team physician, said a major advantage of wearable and bio-integrated technology is the ease of monitoring athletes, who can now be observed while working in natural environments.

“We used to have to put a pitcher in a room with cameras,” Mjaanes said. “Now with wearables, the pitcher can be out on the mound instead of in a lab.”

Improving human performance

Rajesh NaikA military aircraft typically has more than 1,500 sensors for navigation, stabilization, collision-avoidance, and more. But the human who flies the plane? He or she does not wear even one sensor.

“Which is the more expensive piece of equipment?” asked Rajesh Naik, chief scientist in the 711th Human Performance Wing of the Air Force Research Laboratory. “The human is the most expensive.”

Naik discussed ways that the military is working to monitor individuals and teams to optimize performance and keep soldiers safer. Because they are designed with a “one-size-fits-all” approach,” 75 percent of current fitness trackers do not work well in soldiers’ specialized training or battlefield environments. The military is developing its own technology to monitor the physiology and cognitive functions of soldiers when underwater, in confined spaces, exposed to fumes, and more. Information collected from these technologies could help soldiers succeed who might otherwise be selected out of the military.

“It’s not about selecting people out,” Naik said. “It’s about enabling people to do their jobs better.”

Monitoring mental health

David MohrNorthwestern’s David Mohr believes that the world could be on the brink of the third mental health revolution. Sigmund Freud ushered in the first revolution with psychotherapy. Pharmacological drugs to treat psychological disorders brought about the second revolution. And now tech-supported mental health care could cause another revolution in the field.

As director of Northwestern’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, Mohr and his team are finding ways to use technology to improve physicians’ abilities to treat mental health patients. His team found that the most effective technologies seamlessly sense patient behaviors rather than require patients to input their own information.

“If you give people an app, it probably won’t help them very much,” said Mohr, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Reason is because they are not going to use it.”

Even adding an interactive coach to an app-based plan does not help outcomes because the patient will simply stop talking to the coach. Technologies, Mohr found, need to require little or no effort from the patient. So his team developed “Purple Robot,” a passive data collection system that monitors patients with depression or bipolar disorder through their smartphone’s GPS. While less depressed people tend to move more and have more variation in activity, depressed people might stay in their home for days. If the Purple Robot senses unusual or sedentary activity, for example, then it might suggest to the patient to go for a walk or call a friend.

“How you move through space today can tell a lot about your depression level 10 weeks away,” Mohr said. “Mental health problems are often chronic and often relapsing. If we can identify people early and get them into treatment, we can potentially save a lot of misery.”

Communicating with thoughts

Mark ChevilletSomeday, people might be able to record and send messages simply by thinking. Mark Chevillet, technical project lead at Facebook Building 8, is working on this type of brain-computer interface technology. Facebook users first communicated with text, then photos, and then videos. So Chevillet believes that it’s only natural that people will continue to seek out “increasingly high fidelity ways to communicate with each other.”

Humans can think much faster than they speak or type, so sending messages by thinking would undoubtedly speed up communication. Chevillet likens it to Internet speeds: the human brain produces one terabit of data per second, which is equivalent to downloading 40 high-definition movies each second. But humans speak at 40-60 bits per second — a speed similar to a 1980s dial-up modem.

“There’s a lot more going on in your head than you can say,” Chevillet said.

Chevillet presented a summary of his work to develop a silent speech interface that sends thoughts straight to a computer. His team is first figuring out how to use technology to decode text from brain activity in real time. Then it will tackle the issue of measuring brain activity in a non-invasive manner. Current technologies that measure brain signals, such as MRI, are too big and expensive. And brain-computer interfaces currently being studied to help patients move paralyzed limbs require implanted electrodes and brain surgery. Because these methods and technologies are impractical, researchers at Facebook Building 8 have been studying different ways to transfer brain signals with wearable sensors.

Adding touch to touchscreens

Ed ColgateTouching something might seem like a simple activity, but it’s actually a fairly complicated process. When we touch an object, the skin on our fingers either vibrates or is stretched or deformed. That information is collected by a network of sensors and then processed by the brain. When we touch a flat, glass touchscreen, there is really nothing to feel.

“That rich network of sensors has almost no role,” said Northwestern Engineering’s Ed Colgate. “A touchscreen isn’t, to my mind, really a touchscreen.”

Colgate, the Allen K. Johnnie Cordell Breed Senior Professor of Design, and Michael Peshkin, the Bette and Neison Harris Professor in Teaching Excellence, presented their work to put touch into the touchscreen by using haptics technology. Much of their work involves manipulating friction on glass by modulating electric or ultrasonic signals below the surface. Their technology can make smooth glass feel and sound like sandpaper, metal, or ceramic.

Michael Peshkin

Colgate and Peshkin’s research is being commercialized through Tanvas, one of the startup companies which showcased its technology during a demo session after the symposium. The demo session also included John Rogers’ company Wearifi, which develops miniaturized, biocompatible near field communication devices for the consumer electronics industry.