John Lach, right, with grad student Ridwan Alam (Engr ’19) Stacey Evans

What if a skin patch, powered off human motion or body heat, could allow your doctor to check your vital signs from afar, or an adult child to monitor an elderly parent’s daily activities from a smartphone, or an obstetrician to check a baby’s development in the womb?

Today we have Fitbits, smart watches, and apps that monitor basic metrics. In the rapidly evolving field of wearable-sensor technology, researchers see the potential to transform our approach to health care and wellness.

But as UVA engineering professor John Lach points out, technological innovation won’t get us there alone; knowledge of human behavior is integral.

“If it’s just a bunch of engineers trying to solve a technical problem, it won’t be successful,” he says. “Behavior is such a critical component of health and wellness and something that we are just beginning to understand—and we need to understand those factors before we can begin to figure out how to help.”

Lach is chair of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where he works on the design and development of sensor systems and networks that are used to gather data, as well as the preliminary processing of the data received from the system.

In one project, Lach is working with dementia patients living at home, along with their caregivers, to develop a system of wearable and in-home sensors to detect vocal and movement patterns that are indicators of agitation. The main reason families transition loved ones to a care facility is the caregiver burden associated with dementia-related agitation, Lach explains. The project hopes to determine whether detecting early signs of agitation and notifying caregivers to intervene with effective soothing techniques can make it possible to reduce the frequency and severity of agitation, which could enable more families to continue caring for loved ones at home.

Lach and his research team work on optimizing the convenience, user-friendliness and effectiveness of the sensors, which is a key goal in wearable-sensor technology. “We focus on how you can develop ultra-low-powered or self-powered systems that can still gather the data you need,” he says. “If we could make it a little patch on the skin that people never have to worry about, that could be very impactful.”

“If it’s just a bunch of engineers trying to solve a technical problem, it won’t be successful. ... Behavior is such a critical component of health and wellness.”

—UVA engineering professor John Lach

An ongoing challenge in his field is to understand the complex relationship between environment, behavior, motivation and health. “The technology won’t succeed if it’s built on “assumptions on other people’s behalf that there is one ‘right’ way to do something.”

Deborah Lupton is a sociologist and a professor at the University of Canberra in Australia who has studied this “assumption” problem in the rise of digitized health-tracking technologies. In an email, she writes that the field is dominated by a demographic of the young, healthy, well-educated, able-bodied, economically advantaged and technologically savvy who “do not necessarily understand what is important for users outside of their demographic.” As a result, she writes, “such apps and wearables often assume a certain kind of user who has the capacity to act in the ways assumed by the design.”

Lach agrees with that critique. He emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary expertise as well as the involvement of actual users in the process from the beginning. “Getting their input and understanding their concerns is not just an afterthought, but a core part of the entire process,” he says. Engineering ingenuity itself isn’t what could transform the future of health and wellness. It’s the capacity of this technology to adapt to the incredible variety of who we are.