Imagine a world where your environment reacts for you. No, not to you, for you. Things like automatic doors or lighting are already pretty much baseline but how about advertising that is only visible to you? A road that safeguards you in the event of an accident? Weather that matches your mood? A building that knows if you are feeling cold or warm and changes the thermal conditions accordingly?

Most of the examples sound like science fiction, but the last one is actually something that is about to become a reality very soon. It is called Human Thermal Sensor (HTS) and it has been more or less under development for the past 15 years. What started as a simple thought about modelling a human similarly to a building in terms of thermodynamics, has taken major leaps in the last few years and may very well revolutionise the whole concept of thermal comfort. But before we proceed any further, one of the men behind all of this should be introduced.

Pekka Tuomaala, Principle Scientist of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland LTD

Pekka Tuomaala, a 55-year old Principle Scientist of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland LTD, has been studying thermodynamics for over 30 years. For someone who claims to have “never done a day of real work” he certainly has a long CV. While he has been working on numerous projects during the last few decades, HTS has only been his main focus for a few years. However, the first seeds for the whole project were planted in 2002 when he was finishing his PhD.

“The roots of the innovation are in my doctoral dissertation but the actual efforts for HTS started in 2005 with the thought that buildings shouldn’t be built to be energy efficient, they should be built to be effective at serving different kinds of human needs as well as possible”, says Pekka.

Together with Kalevi Piira, a fellow scientist, they started questioning past thermal control principles and changed the viewpoint from building efficiency to the expectations of occupants. While there were times when the research received both funding and interest from different companies (Hattiwatti-project in 2008-2009 for example), the concept was often only kept alive by the vision and passion (and plenty of sacrificed free time) of Pekka and Kalevi.

It wasn’t until 2014 when a breakthrough was made for a wider scientific audience at the Building Simulation and Optimisation conference in London. The Human Thermal Model (HTM) was used for a simulation where three females and three males, all with the same activity and clothing, were described with different body compositions. The interesting result, first even considered a fluke, was that body composition and muscularity alone can make a difference of 6 degrees in optimal temperature between a muscular male and a non-muscular female. Combined with the fact that even a resting muscle produces heat almost three orders of magnitude more than fat tissue (1 W/kg vs 0,04 W/kg), an obvious need for a reliable concept to adjust indoor temperatures correctly was clearly there.

So, what is HTS?

It is a concept that calculates the most comfortable temperature for any occupant, catering for individual body composition, clothing and activity level. Combined with heating or cooling systems in workplaces, hospitals, home, car or even airplane seats it can improve comfort, productiveness, performance or even health. Most of us feel both warm and cold during the day and traditionally this can be fixed by changing clothing, opening/closing a window or adjusting the air conditioning.

However, there are plenty of situations where, besides convenience, automating the process has clear benefits: forgetting to turn off the heating system when leaving home means wasted energy. An unconscious patient who is healing in sub-optimal heat conditions isn’t healing as well as he or she could. An employee who suffers from too low or too high temperature is a lot less productive: a change of ±3 degrees has been proven to make a difference of 4 – 7 % in terms of productivity. In an expert organisation where labour expenses can be close to 90 % of all expenses, the energy costs are minimal compared to the costs of thermal discomfort. And how do you value someone’s health, or even life?

The HumanTool, a concept prototype that is being tested currently in the scientists’ own working environment and two hospitals, is already showing a lot of innovation. The idea of a room adjusting to the person inside it instead of it being the other way around has been made real with this new paradigm. However, that’s only a start. With the right technology and data, all buildings, cars and airplanes could potentially benefit from HTS. Pekka has a clear vision for this:

“Indoor environment as a service is something that will be a much bigger thing in the future. Think about employers who want to attract the best workforce by offering HTS-guaranteed conditions? Hotels that are branded as HTS-hotels? Hospitals that can offer faster recovery times, thanks to HTS? The market is a multi-billion one.”

In fact, the sensor technology is already good enough to enable even specific smart clothing to be crafted around HTS. Garments that heat you up when your body temperature gets lower or open-air ventilation when your body is getting too warm would be comfortable for most and vital for the few who are working in extreme conditions.

Whilst everything looks promising, there are still a few challenges left to be tackled

The point of HTS is to gather data based on certain parameters. It is important to make sure that the data can be stored and processed efficiently whilst keeping it secure. Gathering this type of data can also be problematic in terms of the law; for example, in Seinäjoen Keskussairaala where HTS is currently being tested, Pekka actually needed special permission to gather personal information from their occupants. This kind of special permission will not be given outside these tests, so a solution must be found. One solution could be to store the data in personal smartphones with a specific application, so the HTS-building would simply communicate with each occupant’s phone. This would also make spreading different HTS solutions a lot easier, each building or vehicle requiring just a simple app login.

The process of transforming a technological innovation to an actual, market-ready product hasn’t been easy. Pekka believes that the path should be made clearer and support should be more readily available for situations like this: “A less stubborn person would have given up with HTS a long time ago. Can we really, as a nation, afford to let innovations go to waste just like that?”. Innovation is the key to continuous growth, and it allows us to develop to directions which were unreachable before. Flying? Electricity? Internet? All of them were borderline insanity before someone had the ability to think outside the box. They also required someone to be stubborn enough to survive all obstacles. How many inventions like that have we missed because the support for them wasn’t available? How much resources do we waste supporting a system that doesn’t fully serve its purpose? The same principle that has carried HTS through all these years could be part of the solution when creating better support structures:

“A Smart solution should adapt to the user, not the other way around”. By adopting that thought well enough we might experience a highway that protects us in a car crash. If not, at least the wait will be comfortable in our HTS-homes, -hospitals and -offices. And that’s not the distant future, it’s happening right now.

The author is Mirko Hovinmaa.

Enjoyed the article? Here’s further reading for you:

Visions2020 Part 10: Build Personal Wellbeing and Organisational Performance Will Follow

Read the previous article in Visions 2020 series:

Visions2020 Part 8: How to Make IT Your Company’s Competitive Edge

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