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 keep the house shiny and bright without somebody operating them.
At Carleton University in Ottawa, 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.
Out of sight
Rafik Goubran, PhD and acting dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design, and Dr Frank Knoefel, chief of staff and vice-president of medical affairs at SCO Health Service, are leading the effort.
"We want to monitor small deviations in behaviour: 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?" Goubran said. "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," Goubran said.
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 they get up to use the bathroom in the night (a possible indication of diabetes), whether they have trouble getting out of bed, even whether they are losing weight.