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issue: September 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

From the Top
Bringing Health Care Home

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

When most of us think of retirement, we envision happy days filled with family, friends, and hobbies. We think of a rich, independent life of our own making. But as we age, the likelihood of needing assistance with even basic daily tasks multiplies, as does our odds of living in a nursing home.

What if our homes could become more "supportive" of wellness and aid in the early detection of illness with instrumentation and health monitoring devices that collect data through an array of sensors that transmit information electronically to a doctor? What if the home could promote healthy eating and more active lifestyles and encourage us to proactively take better care of ourselves?

By 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will double, creating an unsustainable increase in demand for medical services, as the "boomers" will require, on average, five times the number of clinic visits than those younger than them.

Back in January, I wrote about the Open Source Building Alliance (OSBA), a concept that will provide individuals with choices about how to configure their homes, while also allowing for mass-customization through a modular component system. This forward-thinking Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) forum allows companies to participate in testing strategies and setting standards for future single- and multi-family residences. One of the most desired byproducts of this new building paradigm will be living spaces that unobtrusively monitor and encourage individual wellness.

MIT and my company, TIAX, have just finished constructing PlaceLab, a shared research facility nestled in a new building in Cambridge, MA, U.S. It features a 1,000-sq-ft apartment where researchers are studying how people will use technology in their living space on a daily basis. Researchers are creating a supportive home that can maintain or even improve the health of people as they age to allow them independence and life quality in later years.

Volunteers will actually live in the facility during experiments that will run from a few days to several months. Researchers are eager to test out cost-effective home-based early warning systems to detect changes in a person's health early on, when prevention or quick recovery are still attainable. Changes in eating, sleeping, and socialization patterns often herald the onset of emerging health problems - especially in elderly persons. PlaceLab researchers will also attempt to make positive changes in people's diet, exercise, and prescription drug compliance through the use of non-invasive, home-based biometric monitoring devices, such as blood pressure sensors and EKGs. For more detailed information, see the PlaceLab link on www.tiax.biz.

The University of Rochester in New York, U.S. is developing its own living lab concept known as the Center for Future Health. Researchers there have developed a gait monitor to track the way residents walk. A change in gait - say from brisk walking to limping or shuffling - could indicate an oncoming illness such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, or a stroke.

Georgia Tech (Atlanta, GA, U.S.) researchers are developing a "digital family portrait" - a communication system that helps adult children monitor the health and well being of their aging parents, even if they live across the country. It tracks eating, sleeping, and mobility patterns, as well as temperature and weather so that changes in patterns may be interpreted properly - such as a parent's reduced activity on a snowy day.

At an Intel lab in Hillsboro, OR, U.S., researchers are using inexpensive sensors and processors coupled with custom software to track even the most mundane daily activities. For instance, if an Alzheimer's patient is making a cup of tea, sensors would track his motions, interpret his intentions through software recognition, and aid him through a video prompt if he shows a lapse in motion toward his goal. He could even be reminded to turn off the stove.

MIT, the University of Rochester, and Georgia Tech are just three examples of universities that are teaming with companies such as Intel, TIAX, Motorola, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Accenture, GE Industrial Systems, and Visteon to bring very innovative technologies into real-world markets.

Noticeably absent from the above list are major appliance companies. Unfortunately, this lack of interest and participation poses the threat of our industry being blindsided by developments in this disruptive technology. While health and wellness activity may initially seem out of the "sweet spot" of the major appliance industry, it is an opportunity for us to apply our skills and experience to make a real difference in our customers' lives.

By participating in developing partnerships and consortiums, we can tap into new business models while getting a sneak preview of technologies that will clearly alter our industry.

Dick Topping

Dick Topping is director of Appliance Research at TIAX LLC (www.tiax.biz). He can be reached by phone at 617/498-6058, by fax at 617/498-7206, or e-mail at topping.r@tiax.biz.

From the Top appears bimonthly in
APPLIANCE Engineer¨.


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