The phrase "smart home" usually summons an image of lighting that goes on and off at a voice command, a stereo that automatically plays the music its owners like best, and vacuum cleaners that automatically keep the house shiny and bright.
At Carleton University in the U.S., however, a multidisciplinary team is working on an entirely different approach to smart houses.
The object of this project, funded by the Ontario Research Network for electronic Commerce (e-Health), is to allow the elderly to remain in their homes rather than having to go to nursing homes, while intercepting incipient health issues before they become emergencies that require hospital stays.
Rafik Goubran, Ph.D. and acting dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design, and Dr. Frank Knoefel, chief of staff and VP of medical affairs at SCO Health Service, which includes Elisabeth Bruyere Hospital and Research Institute, are leading the effort.
The team of engineering Ph.D. students, doctors and nurses at Elisabeth Bruyere Hospital, and elderly patients, is designing a sensor-rich environment to monitor elderly individuals in their homes unobtrusively.
"We want to monitor small deviations in behavior: are they having trouble sleeping, are they developing a joint problem that makes it hard to get up in the morning, is their weight decreasing," Dean Goubran says. "At the same time, we don't want to make them wear wires and sensors all day. We don't want them really conscious of the sensors, although of course they know the sensors are there and have given permission."
The patients put some additional limitations on the approach. For instance, several objected to cameras as being too obtrusive. The team considered placing microphones throughout the environment, but in the end they rejected this for the initial study, in part because elderly people sometimes speak too softly to be easily understood.
Instead, they use more creative sensors such as a pressure-sensitive bed pad and sensors on the doors of refrigerators and ovens to monitor the patient's eating habits. The Kinotex pad, made by Tactex Controls, goes on the mattress under the sheet, so that you cannot see it. "If you press your hand onto the bedspread, it will create a low resolution image of your hand," Dean Goubran says.
This sensor alone can tell monitoring medical personnel whether the individual is having a good night's sleep or is tossing (a side effect of some medicines), how often he gets up to use the bathroom in the night (a possible indication of diabetes), whether he has trouble getting out of bed, even whether he is losing weight.
A tendency to press harder on the bed with one hand than the other can indicate the beginnings of a hip problem, for instance, that one day might cause the patient to fall and end up in hospital. By recognizing the problem early, the monitors can contact the individual's doctor or a son or daughter to get treatment before the problem becomes severe.