Meet Dr. Katrin Reitsma!
Dr. Katrin Reitsma has over 15 years of Research & Development experience in industry, government, and academia and is a proven innovator with 8 US patents, many international publications and contributions to wireless & mobility standards. Katrin received her PhD degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Canada and her MASc degree in Electrical Engineering from the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. Katrin worked as a Guest Researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD. She joined Motorola Labs in Schaumburg, IL in 2009 and is now a distinguished member of the technical staff in Motorola Solutions Chief Technology Office in Chicago. Her general research interests are cyber security and cryptography and she currently works on user friendly solutions to secure all kinds of connected devices.
Why did you choose to study the engineering field?
My favorite courses in high school were math and physics. Knowing no engineers at this point in my life, I naturally assumed that I would become a math and physics teacher. However, in my last year in high school I attended an event hosted by the electrical engineering department of a university. While there, the dean talked about how engineers APPLY math and science to solve real world problems, improving our quality of life, expanding humankind’s horizon and sometimes even saving lives. This suddenly gave my love for math and physics a purpose and I was “sold”.
Do you have a simple definition of “wearables”?
Generally speaking, I consider “wearables” as any device that is worn on a body (human, animal, or even robot) and is able to communicate with the outside world via another more powerful device that is connected to the wearables via a short-range wireless link like Bluetooth. Wearables can be simple single-purpose sensors such as a body worn heart rate monitor periodically reporting vitals to a host device; or a more complex multi-purpose smart device such as smart watches that have some stand-alone functionality but are still connected to more powerful devices for full functionality as well as data storage & analysis.
Can you please describe the work you personally do, especially as related to “wearables?”
I am a security research engineer, and as such I perform threat analyses of products and solutions, e.g., to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker to gain access to sensitive information or to shut down a service in a denial of service (DoS) attack. Here it is important to determine the likelihood and impact of each attack to appropriately prioritize the implementation of mitigating steps (Note: there are no 100% secure solutions). In addition, I help designing new secure products, to ensure security is build in from scratch and not just as an afterthought. With respect to wearables it is very important to ensure that secure links are established between wearable(s) and host device(s), which often requires the successful authentication of both (all) devices to each other. This sounds easier than it often is, e.g., a malicious device/user could “pretend” to be an authorized device. All data collected on a wearable need to be securely communicated to host device, which often requires the communication to be encrypted. Finally, all data stored on a wearable need to be protected which is often challenging given the resource constraints of many wearables. As a result, security engineers like me design and oversee the secure implementation of authentication, key establishment and encryption protocols to protect wearables.
What do you love about engineering?
I love that no project is ever the same. Every problem has a different solution depending on customers’ specific work environments (try using a smartphone in a burning building), expectations (such as usability even in high stress situations, like a foot chase), and requirements (e.g., collecting massive amounts of data while meeting privacy regulations). Sometimes I work on improving existing solutions, but my favorite activity is exploring new ways to solve a problem, e.g., by leveraging emerging technologies from another field.
How did you first get involved with wearables….was there a project of effort that kickstarted your focus in this area? Share a project or inspiration with us please that prompted your involvement…
At work, we envision the Police Officer of the Future, a future concept that uses a number of body worn sensors and devices to enable them to do their job more efficiently and safely. The team is very diverse (User experience designer, RF engineers, data analysts, SW developers, etc.) and my role as a security engineer is to make sure that all data is protected. For example, we have been working on body-worn cameras. Here it is important that video streams are securely uploaded to a server such that the video can be used as digital evidence. This and other data collected by wearables used in Public Safety need to be protected such that data cannot get lost, fall into false hands or get tampered with. Other wearables for the police officer of the future include bio monitors that can report officer’s vitals to the control center (e.g., to trigger an alarm if an officer is in distress), smart glasses offering an augmented reality view (e.g., to automatically scan license plates in view), and gun holster sensor to record events whenever the gun is drawn and trigger an appropriate response such as sending back up. All this data is sensitive and, thus, needs to be protected.
Can you explain a little about how you think wearables will impact everyday products or the world in general?
Right now, consumer wearables are mostly smart watches and bracelets used for tracking physical activities and fitness. However, as with a lot of popular technologies, wearables will become cheaper, smaller, smarter and, with the advent of new applications, more ubiquitous. In the future wearables will be used by everyone everywhere in an intuitive way (i.e., we won’t sometimes even know that were are interacting with them). We are still in what I call an exploratory phase where we play with what can be done, before we start working on what should be done. One current trend is to make wearables smarter, so that they provide stand-alone functionality, e.g., smart watches work even in the absence of a smartphone now. A natural progression of wearables are implantables or even things that we swallow.
Is there a particular application or industry that you think could benefit the most from wearables in the future? Medical, entertainment, security?
Healthcare and elderly care are fields that can immediately benefit from using wearables by providing a cost efficient way to remotely monitor health. In the security space, wearables can be used to make user authentication more user friendly and sometimes even stronger. For example, whenever a known smartwatch is in proximity of a user’s smartphone the screen does not lock because it can be inferred that the user is also in close proximity. Vitals recorded by my smart wristband could be used as a biometric authentication credential that authenticates me to unlock my laptop. Other body worn sensor can be used to open physical locks like doors that are equipped with the counterpart device that recognizes the signature of my sensor. Ideally user interaction is kept to a minimum.
What are the current challenges to advances in wearables technology?
The biggest hurdle is not necessary technical but rather creating a good user experience. For example, I love the idea of “living” in an augmented reality as long as it doesn’t involve wearing awkward looking glasses that constantly need to be recharged. In addition to the form factor, it is important to find user friendly non-intrusive and safe ways to interact with wearables. For instance, looking down at a screen or interacting with a touchscreen may be disruptive or even dangerous in many situations. This is why I work on so-called “eyes up, hands free” solutions to keep our customers safe.
Whom do you admire and why?
MacGyver (an American action-adventure television series character) is my childhood hero because he did not use any weapons but rather his knowledge of science and real-time problem solving skills to get out of difficult situations, often times only using duct tape, a swiss army knife and anything else he could find in his immediate surroundings. A true engineer!
How has the engineering field changed since you’ve started?
Even though we had some major shifts in technology since I went to grad school, I feel the biggest change is how we use technology and how we interact with it. So for example, just because I understand how social media apps work (using some pretty old Internet protocols), doesn’t mean I get why we need video chats with strangers 🙂 While you constantly need to keep up with new technologies, it’s all strangely familiar. The key is to be able to recognize how a known technology can be applied to a new field or application. This is much more often the case than is inventing something completely novel.
Additionally, the number of women in engineering is still disappointingly low. I was hoping this would change much faster, but just as when I attended university twenty years ago, women are still a minority in most STEM fields.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned through your work with wearables?
The hardest thing is interoperability because we cannot simply design a solution from scratch and assume a single vendor will provide all pieces of the ecosystem. A lot of wearable technology is already available today but most of it does not necessarily work with each other out of the box. For this reason, standardization of protocols and interfaces is paramount to drive more use cases.
What advice would you give to recent graduates interested in working to develop improved wearable technology in the future?
Try to actually build some of your ideas. Sensors, development boards and mobile devices are relatively inexpensive and open source software tools are widely available. Start with a concrete problem, then solve it. Keep it simple. Show your prototype to your friends and improve it based on their feedback. Then bring your prototype to your next job or internship interview and talk through your design process.
If you weren’t in the engineering field, what would you be doing?
I would be a psychologist, at least that was my second choice when I finished high school. I think I would always do something that requires problem solving.