Chain Reaction Seen here is the chamber where human subjects biosignals were tested with sensors to alter the rooms temperature.
Courtesy Joon-Ho Choi Chain Reaction Seen here is the chamber where human subjects biosignals were tested with sensors to alter the rooms temperature.

While he was a university student, Joon-Ho Choi worked in a hospital, where he noticed that patients—especially those in intensive care—rarely have much control over their environments. “They are subjected to temperature and lighting conditions that are set more for the comfort of the nursing staff,” he recalls.

That observation became the inspiration for Choi’s research while studying for his Ph.D. in engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He wanted to see if he could devise a way that human biosignals—such as heart rate, skin temperature, movement, sweat—could be used with body sensors to trigger adjustments in the heating and cooling systems in a room for greater individual comfort.

Working with Vivian Loftness, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture & Center for Building Performance & Diagnostics, and using grant money from the Pittsburgh-based Green Building Alliance (GBA), Choi found that a person’s arm is the best place to attach a sensor that, through a wireless connection, could help regulate a room’s thermostat. Loftness suggested that the sensor could be part of a simple bracelet or even the underside of a watch.

Choi, now an assistant professor of engineering at Missouri University of Science & Technology, in Rolla, Mo., says his research was focused primarily on improving the comfort of patients in hospitals or nursing homes, particularly those whose movements are limited.

But he acknowledges that it’s conceivable this research could have practical applications for other environments, too, such as houses or office buildings. (In fact, while discussing his project with Builder, Choi alluded to studies that find the majority of office workers say their workplaces are too hot or cold.)

This summer, Choi intends to publish his findings and has applied for a patent for his research. (He’s been working with an attorney at Carnegie Mellon.) Choi is also hoping that the GBA can help him find contacts in the private sector to see if his ideas have commercial possibilities.

Aurora Sharrard, the GBA’s director of innovation, tells Builder that many of the 21 proposals that were submitted this year for grant consideration “seem to be trying to do more with less: How to use waste products better, how to manage indoor air quality.” It’s also worth noting that virtually all of the proposals this year have private partnerships with Pennsylvania-based companies (which is not a prerequisite for what’s known as a “proof of concept” grant). “We’re trying to drive this and help people see the value of these partnerships,” Sharrard says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Pittsburgh, PA.