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issue: November 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Building a Supportive Home

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by Dick Topping, director of Appliance Research, TIAX, LLC

You may recall that in September 2003, we published an article as part of our regular series in APPLIANCE magazine entitled Bringing Health Care Home.

In it, we discussed the impending health care crisis as baby boomers age and their demand for health care outstrips the availability of traditional services in clinics and physicians’ offices.

As a possible solution to this looming problem, we discussed an alternative in which technology could deliver many needed services right in the home. And we talked about ways that technology could encourage healthier lifestyles, including better diet and exercise, in a natural, effective setting. We introduced PlaceLab, a fully instrumented apartment being built by TIAX and operated jointly with MIT as a tool to help bring some of the ideas to fruition. Volunteers in PlaceLab could be studied interacting with new technologies aimed not only at providing enhanced health care, but also at improving overall quality of life in areas such as comfort, entertainment, energy, and indoor air quality (IAQ).

At that time, we also discussed the need for appliance companies to get involved—not just to be prepared for a whole new group of competitors looking to “own your space,” but because the trends could enable a promising new generation of home appliances. Rather than posing the next unwelcome business challenge, we suggested that the developments could be the long sought-after solution to the commoditization of the industry, and an opportunity for U.S. industry to regain its traditional leadership role in product development and production.

We continued this theme last April at the AHAM Annual Meeting where I suggested to attendees that the “box” is shifting from the stand-alone appliance to the integrated Supportive Home, and the industry should change its focus from unconnected household tasks (washing, refrigeration, cooking, etc.) to improving all aspects of the customer’s life through collaboration, integration and innovation.

Today, PlaceLab is fully up and running. TIAX and MIT have conducted several experiments with a ready list of volunteers investigating issues ranging from medication adherence, to making TV-watching more productive, to improving IAQ. No one has objected to the degree of observation (the volunteer has the final say as to what is recorded) and people report that, once in PlaceLab, they quickly forget they are participating in an experiment. Data gathering and analysis software allow large quantities of data to be analyzed accurately and quickly. Video is only one capability; hundreds of sensors and data collection devices of various types monitor participants as they are asked to perform a number of activities. These often include everyday tasks, such as cooking, eating, cleaning, and studying. But they also extend to interacting with new technologies. For example, volunteers might be asked to determine how best to control energy-saving HVAC systems, or what level of IAQ feels like “fresh air,” or what are the best feedback and display concepts to remind them to take their medication.

The capability exists within PlaceLab to augment traditional market research methods with advanced technology to achieve a far more precise and controllable process, therefore reducing the risk of misinterpreting or even missing important societal trends. And the unique instrumentation and observation methodologies that have been developed are valuable for broader use outside the current facility. Portable systems are under development for situations where a large sample size requires many tests in several locations. Large organizations that regularly gather detailed consumer data could very well decide to acquire their own dedicated facility for full time use.

PlaceLab, and other facilities that are surely to follow, provide a great opportunity for enhanced study of the consumer. Their technologies address the well-understood shortcomings of self-reporting and limited interaction with researchers, whether using surveys, focus groups or other means, by recording exactly what people do in actual living environments. They record events that are too repetitive or peripheral to be obtained through recall questioning, and capture them with the precise timing, sequence and surrounding conditions all automatically recorded. The data are not influenced by our psychological instincts to please the questioner or by the impact the presence of a researcher has on behavior. The combination of true in-context study and advanced sensor technologies can fill in valuable information that is difficult or impossible to obtain through other means. These “Observing Places” potentially offer vastly improved richness in data gathering and reduce the risk of developing the “wrong product at the wrong time” as consumers’ tastes, desires and expectations rapidly evolve. In fact, they should contribute to better products developed more quickly with far fewer market failures.

About the Author

Dick Topping manages HVAC and Building Technologies research at TIAX LLC (Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.). Since graduating with a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he has worked in the appliance industry for more than 25 years. If you would like to contact Topping, please e-mail editor@appliance.com.


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