Wearable Technology Takes Center Stage at UC Davis

An astronaut making a spacewalk outside a space station.
A haptic sleeve that would provide a sense of touch as astronauts manipulate a robotic arm is among the projects under development at the WearLab in the UC Davis Department of Design. (NASA photo)

Inside an L-shaped room in Cruess Hall, surrounded by workstations, 3D printers, sewing machines, tools and mannequins wearing prototypes, Gozde Goncu-Berk builds the future. It’s a future of many possibilities, but those possibilities share a common thread. They’re all based around humanity’s increasing use of wearable technology.

A woman in a black top with brown hair tied back works with a dressmaker's dummy in a lab setting.
Associate Professor of Design Gozde Goncu-Berk working in the WearLab.

“The main question that guides my research is, how can we use clothing, textiles, new materials and digital fabrication technologies to improve our lives through design?” said Goncu-Berk, an associate professor in the Department of Design in the College of Letters and Science. “There’s a lot of potential for these technologies to augment bodily functions that are lost, help with chronic health conditions and enhance life.”

Smartwatches, Bluetooth earbuds, virtual reality headsets — these devices are becoming more commonplace in the second decade of the 21st century. However, society is still in the nascent stages of adopting wearable technology. While its potential applications are numerous, the foundational research to design, fabricate and disseminate wearable devices is ongoing.

Wearables Collective 2024

Researchers, like Goncu-Berk, are forging interdisciplinary partnerships to usher in the wearable technology age. The projects at UC Davis run the gamut, from designing a real-time bladder monitoring system to a NASA-funded project for a haptic sleeve interface for a robotic arm.

What’s more, UC Davis faculty are training the next generation of technologists, providing them with opportunities to explore and answer pressing questions at the intersection of health, science and fashion.

The Privee: A wearable urinary monitor 

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 423 million people worldwide experience some form of urinary incontinence, a condition that can arise for various reasons, including menopause, obesity, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy, among others. Currently, containment is the only management technique for this problem.

Goncu-Berk hopes to change that with Privee, an unobtrusive undergarment that monitors bladder fullness in real-time.

“This was an idea I had for many years before I was here at UC Davis, but I was never able to fully actualize it,” Goncu-Berk said. “But with the right collaborators here, now we have a functional prototype.”

Goncu-Berk realized this vision thanks to a partnership with Houman Homayoun, a professor in the UC Davis College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Together, they presented a prototype of the Privee at the UbiComp/ISWC wearable computing conference in fall 2023.

With a design informed by interviews with urinary incontinence patients, the Privee is meant to be worn beneath underwear to ensure contact with skin. Eight embroidered electrodes along with textile transmission lines are woven into the Privee’s fabric, providing the necessary apparatuses to transmit biological information.

Harnessing a technology called bioimpedance spectroscopy, the Privee’s electrodes are fashioned from conductive thread and positioned along the bladder area. The amount of liquid in the bladder affects the electrical characteristics of that region. When the bladder is full, the impedance, or the resistance of the tissues, are different compared to when it’s not full. That electrical information is then captured by a specialized algorithm that estimates a time to urination.   

“People who don’t have awareness of their bladder, like those with cerebral palsy or Alzheimer’s disease or some sort of spinal cord injury where they have to use diapers or need to be catheterized, would benefit from the Privee,” Goncu-Berk said. 

With an operational prototype in hand, Goncu-Berk and her collaborators are looking for opportunities to commercialize the technology. That’s predicated on partnering with someone who knows the ins and outs of bringing such a product to market. And she’s actively looking for that partner.

“I am very excited about the possibility of these efforts to reach the end user one day,” said Goncu-Berk.

To the stars

Goncu-Berk’s research partnerships across the UC Davis campus aren’t limited to projects solely concerning human health. In fact, one of her research partnerships aims to bring wearable technology to those advancing humanity’s mission to the stars.

Across campus from Goncu-Berk’s WearLab in Cruess Hall sits the Bionic Engineering and Assistive Robotics Laboratory, also known as BEAR Lab. Run by Jonathon Schofield, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the BEAR Lab specializes in integrating advanced assistive technologies and humans.

“A lot of the work we do focuses on how we can interface with the human nervous system, whether that’s actually working with surgeons to access nerve and muscle signals or using non-invasive wearable systems,” said Schofield. “We’re often looking at how we can facilitate communication between humans and machines.”

In the medical world, this type of research is revolutionizing prosthetic limb design. Divorced from prosthetic design, Schofield and Goncu-Berk are collaborating on a NASA-funded project to design a sleeve that provides astronauts with haptic, or sense of touch, information while they operate a robotic arm during space missions. Additional collaborators include Professor Stephen Robinson, a former astronaut who’s now a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Professor Wilsaan Joiner of the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior.

When operating a robotic arm in space, astronauts are often overtly visually taxed, splitting their attention between multiple monitors and viewing windows, and operating various knobs and buttons. The NASA haptic sleeve project’s aim, according to Schofield, is to give astronauts relevant information through an array of vibration motors embedded in the sleeve. That additional sensory feedback could help them avoid space collision or better follow a prescribed movement trajectory.

“How can we promote extremely proficient operation of a robotic arm where it’s like an extension of the body in the same way you’d see a professional tennis player use their racket?” Schofield said. 

Enter Joiner, an expert in human motor learning who’s previously partnered with Schofield on prosthetic design projects. According to Joiner, similarities exist between the underlying biological research for prosthetic limb design and the NASA haptic sleeve project.

“When we rely on our limbs, we rely on a wealth of information — proprioception, haptic information when we feel things, and vision — and you have to integrate all of that information to make predictions about the consequences of your movements,” Joiner said. “When you’re talking about prosthetics, you’re really talking about how to best operate an external device when you don’t have the natural feedback that we usually do.”

That mentality can be applied to a robotic arm and a human operator. The human operator can’t inherently feel the tactile sensations experienced by the robotic arm. But such information, if available, would create a safer environment by enabling more comprehensive control. Some advanced prosthetic research is already tapping into neural and muscular signals to provide wearers with some semblance of sensation.

“If we can provide sufficient and effective feedback to folks who are missing a limb, then surely we should be able to provide enough feedback to someone who has an able-bodied limb who is trying to model or mimic their movements with a robotic arm,” Joiner said.

Currently, Schofield and colleagues are experimenting with an early-stage prototype of the haptic sleeve. Goncu-Berk’s contributions to the project concern making the wearable functional in an electronic textile, comfortable and fit for a human operator.

“Humans are very interesting to design for, and Gozde entered the equation as someone with an expertise in wearables who works with materials, garments, fabrics and mediums that we don’t normally see in classical engineering,” said Schofield. “She’s just an incredibly creative individual with a ton of expertise in the area.” 

Wearables in the classroom

Wearables technology research at UC Davis isn’t restricted to faculty. Students are also trying their hands at designing the future. In the class “Studio Practice in Design,” Goncu-Berk guides students through an iterative design process as they work on a collective project. 

On right is a dressmaker's dummy with white crossed straps across front and a headpiece on top.
Latrell Broughton and Isadora Goldschneider designed a prototype wearable that adds a layer of mixed reality to astronauts' Earth-gazing experience. (Photo courtesy of Gozde Goncu-Berk)

First-year design MFA students Latrell Broughton and Isadora Goldschneider, who both took the class during their first quarter of the MFA program, partnered with the UC Davis Spaceflight Research Center, run by Professor Stephen Robinson, on a project about designing immersive experiences for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

“Emotionally, the isolation of being on the ISS, combined with the intensity of the work environment, can cause negative outcomes for an astronaut’s mental wellbeing, leading to poor job performance,” said Goldschneider. “We looked at one of the astronauts’ favorite activities, Earth gazing, as a point of intervention.”

Typically, astronauts gaze at the Earth from the confines of the ISS’ Cupola, a 360-degree, dome-shaped observatory that provides a view of Earth. To enhance this experience, Broughton and Goldschneider designed a wearable prototype that adds a layer of mixed reality to Earth-gazing.

The prototype consisted of three components: a head piece, a visor and a vest. The head piece is designed to dampen outside noise while providing audio through embroidered speakers. It also houses the visor, which is intended to deliver sensory-oriented, mixed reality experiences through a semi-transparent screen. The adjustable vest employs haptic feedback actuators to induce physical sensations.

Inspired by cooling dog vests, this prototype simulates an experience of closeness that is hard to access in microgravity.

“It was a really tough project for me, but once we were able to get all the components together, once we were able to see the design, it felt very empowering,” said Broughton.

For Broughton and Goldschneider, the experience was akin to being on the precipice of a technological wave. Wearable technologies are primed to change the way we interact with reality. The “Studio Practice in Design” course provided Broughton and Goldschneider with an intimate view of the world to come.

“I think anyone who is interested in pursuing it, I think there are opportunities to align their interests within the field of wearables,” Broughton said. “It’s pretty exciting that there are these opportunities for students here at UC Davis.”

Media Resources

Greg Watry is a content specialist with the College of Letters and Science. This article originally appeared in the college's digital magazine. 

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