When Alex Trevithick places a helmet-like contraption on his head, a torrent of brain waves travels from the device to a computer screen. The software program he’s running slowly learns how the electrical pulses from his brain oscillate as he smiles, frowns and glares at the screen.

Someday, Trevithick’s work might be part of the foundation on which emotionally sensitive houses could communicate with a user’s brain and thoughts.

Trevithick, a junior at Williams College in Massachusetts, and his co-researcher Reece Keller, a sophomore at Seattle University, are based on opposite coasts of the country. But they both found themselves performing cutting-edge research on adaptable architecture at Washington State University this summer, as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in wearable computing sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Alex Trevithick sits at a computer, wearing a helmet-like brain-computer interface.
Alex Trevithick wearing a brain-computer interface which learns how electrical pulses from his brain vary as his facial expression changes.

The pair were part of a cohort of eight students, selected through a rigorous nationwide process, who spent their summer at the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, researching interdisciplinary topics in pervasive computing, machine learning, data mining, circuits and system design as they relate to healthcare, population health, and health sciences. The REU at WSU is headed and organized by Hassan Ghasemzadeh, an associate professor of computer science in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

As part of the multidisciplinary REU program, Trevithick and Keller began working in early June in the Morphogenesis Lab at WSU supervised by Mona Ghandi, an assistant professor of architecture in the School of Design and Construction, who is using emerging technologies to create self-adjusting “compassionate spaces” that are responsive to the psychological and physiological needs of their users. Such spaces can be especially helpful for people with neuromuscular diseases, autism or PTSD, among other disabilities.

“This work can enable people with disabilities to regain control over their environments and live more independent lifestyles,” said Ghandi.

For several years, Ghandi has been developing innovative architectural designs which can adapt to a user’s behavioral patterns and emotional data, with shape-shifting walls, windows that can change their size and location; ceilings that can adjust their height, and even building facades that can re-fashion themselves to improve the mental health of their users. To be able to create such sci-fi houses in real life, Ghandi’s research team first needs to collect a lot of behavioral data from humans.

Keller and Trevithick, as part of the “compassionate spaces” team in Ghandi’s lab, were helping develop the technology to collect a variety of neurological and biological data from users which can be used to create customizable spaces in tune with user needs. By measuring metrics like heart rate, body temperature, skin conductance and electrical signals from the brain, they can train computer algorithms to predict emotions. Ghandi’s team is also developing a mobile app that can detect emotions based on biological data, facial expressions, and voice intonation using algorithms that have been fine-tuned by analyzing large amounts of data.

A sequence of images showing a wall reshaping itself in response to commands from a mobile app.
Mona Ghandi’s team is developing a mobile app that can reshape a wall or window based on user emotion.

So, the app could detect how comfortable a user is feeling, and then direct the walls and windows to adjust their position to allow more or less sunlight and natural ventilation into the room. Similarly, the walls could open to create a new path, seat or table. Additionally, such technology can optimize energy consumption by ensuring passive heating and cooling and maintaining the right temperature and humidity based on the user’s comfort level.

The REU students worked on both the hardware and software components for various sensors.

Keller, who was involved in research for the first time this summer, said he learned a lot, not only about electrical engineering concepts but also about the process of doing research itself.

Reece Keller sitting at a table, bent over and examining a circuit board.
Reece Keller worked last summer on a temperature sensor which detects when a person is uncomfortable based on skin temperature.

“I was lucky to get to observe how research is done at a world-class institution,” Keller said. “It’s a lot of self-management of your productivity and learning on your own.”

“The impetus for hard work in research is much more abstract,” said Trevithick. “There is no immediate goal like in a class, so you’ve got to be able to motivate yourself and have that fire in your belly.”

Both the students advise other undergraduates interested in research to find a topic that they find truly compelling.

“Take your time looking through your options and don’t settle for something unless you’re passionate about it,” said Trevithick.

Students interested in summer research can visit the NSF REU website and search for sites that interest them.

“Find something that catches your imagination and take the plunge,” said Keller. “You won’t regret it.”

Interested undergraduate students can find more details about the wearable computing REU program on the website of the Embedded and Pervasive Systems Lab.