Home of the Future
Atlanta (December 1, 2001) — As the number of senior adults grows, more families grapple with how to care for older parents. To address this growing concern, Georgia Tech researchers are exploring ways to use the latest in home technology to help senior adults remain in their homes and maintain their independence as long as possible in the Aware Home Research Initiative (AHRI).
"The purpose for the Aware Home Research Initiative is to investigate what kinds of services can be built on top of an environment that is aware of the activities of its occupants," said Dr. Gregory Abowd, director of AHRI and associate professor in Georgia Tech's College of Computing. "This ranges from services to support older individuals trying to 'age in place' to families who are trying to seek support for communication within the family and between distributed families and also support for a family trying to raise children."
Graying of America
Results of the 2000 U.S. Census confirm that the senior adult population, those over the age of 65, is growing rapidly. In July 2000, seniors made up 13 percent of the U.S. population, and children under the age of 18 made up 26 percent. The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050 the senior population will more than double to 82 million, an increase fueled by "baby boomers," those born between 1946 and 1964, passing age 65. As a result, by mid-century, the elderly could constitute 20 percent of the total population, with children making up just 24 percent. At the farthest extreme, the number of centenarians (people 100 or older) almost doubled from 36,000 to 65,000 between 1990 and 2000.
The prospect of living longer and enjoying good health longer is exciting, but the reality of maintaining independence, of not becoming a burden to one's children, and the high cost of institutional care such as nursing homes or assistive living centers, are concerns for multiple generations as they approach their golden years.
The Aware Home Research Initiative (AHRI) is a focused research program to develop applications and technologies in a home environment that perceive and assist the occupants. Most of this research takes place in the Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory (BIRL) — a facility equipped with the latest in broadband networking and sensing technologies in a lab that looks like a house. Researchers come primarily from the Georgia Tech College of Computing, but also include faculty from the Schools of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Textile and Fiber Engineering; and Psychology.
"One way you can distinguish between the work being done here at Georgia Tech is that we are trying to look for ways to support everyday activities and specifically to support the kind of cognitive disabilities that come about through the natural process of aging," said Abowd. "We are looking more at the support for the everyday activities of individuals within the home and interactions between those individuals in the home and their distributed family living elsewhere."
BIRL was funded by a $700,000 grant to the Broadband Institute from the Georgia Research Alliance, a public/private partnership fostering technology-based economic development across the state. The exterior of the BIRL, located on the edge of the Tech campus, was designed to blend in with the nearby neighborhood, but the facility includes many features typically found in commercial buildings including extensive networking capabilities.
BIRL contains extremely high bandwidth (the amount of data that can be transmitted) into and out of the house, wired Ethernet network outlets and analog video connections throughout the house, simple trip sensors, motion detectors similar to those used in home security systems, and higher fidelity sensors such as microphones and cameras imbedded in the ceiling. Computer applications use the information from these sensors to track occupants' movements and activities throughout the house so that the house can assist in their daily activities.
BIRL contains three floors, with the same floor plans on the main and second floors. The main floor is research central — always teeming with students working on a wide range of projects. Students are given free rein to create new projects, add features to existing projects, and find ways to make them more stable and reliable. Faculty and students work quickly to develop concepts and prototypes to see how they work in the house environment. Projects frequently use available, off-the-shelf technology, but often researchers develop new technologies to accomplish what they need. Once projects are refined and stabilized, they may graduate to the second floor, where more advanced prototypes are demonstrated to frequent visitors.
Long-term plans include inviting senior subjects to live on the second floor of the home for short time periods to use the various applications on a daily basis. These real-world users in the home environment will provide good initial feedback on how well and in what ways the applications are used in a real-world setting versus in the lab.
The basement holds the guts of the technology — numerous computer servers running various projects, monitoring audio, video, and trip sensors located throughout the house; access to conduits to route network cable to connect various devices; and extensive power and wireless systems.
Aging in Place
Aging in Place is an umbrella effort to focus research and projects specifically on helping senior adults.
"With the Aging in Place project we want to create an environment that supports senior adults who want to live independently in their own homes," said Dr. Elizabeth Mynatt, assistant professor, College of Computing. "We have an impending crisis in the United States as well as other countries with an aging population, and more so than ever these individuals want to maintain an independent, high quality of life in their remaining 20 or 30 years. If we can create an environment in the home that can partner with them for even basic daily activities such as maintaining a good diet or maintaining medication management as well as supporting communication with their family, then we can enable these individuals to live independently in their own homes in contrast to moving to an institutional care setting."
Aging in Place directs and gives purpose to much of the efforts of the Aware Home Research Initiative. In addition, by focusing on assisting senior adults, much of the privacy concerns about living in an aware environment are reduced. The trade-off of giving up some privacy in order to stay in one's home longer is probably an easy decision for most senior adults. Aging in Place also involves the faculty in Georgia Tech's School of Psychology, who have extensive expertise in the cognitive issues of aging and teaching the elderly to use technology.
Through interviews and demonstrations to senior adults, Mynatt has learned that technology developed for this audience has to be extremely flexible to meet the varying needs of different families. Also, the technology needs to make sense and fit into the home environment; it can't stand out like a big computer in the middle of a formal living room.
Digital Family Portrait
The Digital Family Portrait supports communication and awareness between a senior adult and family members, usually their adult children who often live long distances away. Children of senior adults often make the final decision that a parent needs to move to an institutional care setting such as an assistive living center or nursing home. Often this decision is driven by the children's' need to know that the parent is safe. The Digital Family Portrait addresses this communication gap.
"Let's say someone's mother lives in Atlanta, but her son lives on the West Coast," says Mynatt. "In an aware environment the house would be aware of her activities — how well she is sleeping, her eating habits, whether she has had a busy day cleaning the house or exercising — or if she has had a quiet day sleeping a great deal or if the weather is bad and it makes sense that she has not been out doing things. The home would then package that information and send it to the son's Digital Family Portrait of his mother. This would look like a portrait that he would normally have on the mantle or on the wall. He would see a picture of his mom surrounded by icons, in this case butterflies, which indicate how busy his mom is. He can just glance at the icons as he is walking out the door to go to work just to get a sense of how she is, but then he can touch the icon and find out more specific information about that day."
The detailed screen of the Digital Family Portrait indicates the weather, inside temperature, and the level of room-to-room movement of his mother. The son can see the activity pattern of the day and other days of the month and determine if it is a normal day or if unusual things are happening, such as getting up frequently in the middle of the night.
The Portrait is designed so the mother's information is sent only to a Digital Family Portrait within her family; an additional layer of encryption prevents break-ins. However, Mynatt points out that little information is being sent to the Portrait that would be of any use to outsiders. The information in the Portrait is basic information about the amount of movement from room to room, but includes no video.
The Family Intercom is designed to facilitate communication between a senior adult living in an aware environment to family members living elsewhere. The Family Intercom shares certain information about the status and activity of the senior adult with those family members allowed access to that information, such as the mother is asleep and does not want to be disturbed by a phone call.
"A very good and concrete example is whenever I want to call to speak to my mother, I don't want to wake her up when she is sleeping," says Abowd. "It seems a reasonable invasion of privacy, a kind of contract between my mother and myself, that I am allowed information about her status and activity when I am trying to communicate with her. By knowing simple things like she is not in the house or she is asleep right now, I can decide whether I want to leave a message or wake her up based on the urgency of the call I am trying to make."
The Family Intercom application can be incorporated into different interfaces such as the Digital Family Portrait or the intercom system of the house so a phone conversation follows the senior adult as they walk around the house.
Gesture Pendant and Gesture Panel
The Gesture Pendant recognizes and translates simple hand gestures into commands for home appliances, such as a stereo or lights. Developed by Dr. Thad Starner, assistant professor in the College of Computing, the Gesture Pendant is a light-weight, wireless camera system that is worn as a piece of jewelry and uses infrared light to track hand movements. In addition, this system tracks tremors in the hands, which may aid in the monitoring of health conditions such as Parkinson's disease or may assist in watching for signs of overmedication.
The Gesture Panel, based on the same technology as the Gesture Pendant, is designed to address the problem of drivers being distracted on the road. Each year, driver inattention results in the loss of $50 billion and 1.6 million injuries in the United States. By using broad movements to control in-car systems such as the radio, cellular phone, and air conditioning, the Gesture Panel reduces the need for the driver to divert his eyes from the road. Through cooperation with Visteon, a global automotive supplier formerly part of Ford, Georgia Tech is developing this technology for the automotive industry.
Projects change quickly in the Aware Home Research Initiative. Other applications showing great promise include "What Was I Cooking." This application uses simple sensing technology to trigger cameras to take snapshots as one prepares a meal in the kitchen. If interrupted or if the cook can't remember if he added the salt, flour or baking soda, a quick look at the photo collage shows the steps already completed. Also, work continues on refining facial recognition technology to track the whereabouts of residents within an aware environment.
More information about ongoing research in the Aware Home Research Initiative is available online at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/fce/ahri/.
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