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issue: January 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Do Smart Environments Need Smarter Design?

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by Chris Nugent, School of Computing & Mathematics, faculty of engineering, University of Ulster

A hot topic for conversation in engineering circles is the development of technology to create “smart environments.”

Related to that is a question we should perhaps be addressing more often: How can we provide something that will actually be useful and usable from the users’ point of view?

Our population is changing rapidly, especially the increase in people aged 65 and over. This shift has led to greater effort in developing technology to facilitate smart environments.

Essentially, when we talk about smart environments we imply the use of technology, largely in the home, to help automate some of the inhabitants’ daily activities. Generally speaking, these may be grouped into three categories:

  1. Home automation, where appliances such as curtains, doors, and heating systems can be controlled through automated means.
  2. Care-based systems, where sensing technologies can record and process inhabitants’ interaction with their environments and raise alarms in hazardous situations. For example, not taking medication at the correct time, or detecting if the cooker is on when the inhabitant starts to run a bath.
  3. Healthcare systems, where medical devices can record vital signs in an ambulatory (for example, a wearable heart rate monitor) or passive (for example, smart toilet) manner.

Initially, engineering solutions were developed and introduced into the home environment as a means of supporting problems that were already known to exist. People are beginning to play a larger role in their own care delivery  and its management. A further need has now arisen—the requirement to provide solutions for healthy aging.

This suggests the requirement to offer a form of preventive support, with the main driving factors of maintaining levels of personal independence and prevention or delay of disease onset. Although this is a potentially complex concept, solutions to promote levels of physical and cognitive activity are already gaining success.

With this potentially new way of thinking, there is now a real opportunity to recognize the benefits of engaging with a multidisciplinary team for future design and development efforts. Until recently, not all engineering solutions for smart environments were well received. A possible reason for this may stem from design and development processes that were predominantly engineering led.

Research-based projects in this area are now led by teams of social scientists, occupational therapists, and geriatric specialists, along with the core engineering team. The results are new and emerging development methodologies that provide a truly user-centered design process.

This approach is not limited to user engagement during requirement elicitation processes. It also promotes proper user involvement throughout the development stages, along with structured approaches to evaluate its impact, the result of which can be used to inform further iterations of technical development. Efficient implementation of these steps has shown the recent development of solutions with shorter development times and higher levels of end-user acceptance. Indeed, from an engineering point of view, we have moved from high-tech solutions with low user impact to low-tech solutions with high levels of user impact. This has been complemented with the degree of innovation coming more from the process of user engagement rather than the end product.

Although we have come a long way in this area, there are still some practical issues that need to be considered:

  • How can we keep things as simple as possible?
  • How can the installation process at home and integration with existing systems be streamlined?
  • How can the technology be personalized to meet preferences on a person-by-person basis?

Some of those issues are currently being addressed. We should learn from those previous experiences as we strive to develop further solutions for smart environments. 

About the Author

Chris Nugent’s research spans medical decision support systems with artificial intelligence, enabling technologies to support independent living, Internet-based healthcare models, and wearable systems. To contact him, e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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