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The "Smart Technology" Future Is Now

October 1, 2003
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Interview with Eric Dishman, Intel Corporation

Dishman: Well, we don't like the term "Smart Home," because most of the Smart Homes that exist aren't that smart; but the spirit of the Smart Home is right. It means getting data into the system about people's everyday lives in the context of what they're doing, so that you can get the benefit of computing and the like without having to educate people extensively on the technology.

Many elder households we've been studying have been healthy aging households. If you look at the oldest old, the ratio of women to men is 2 to 1. Many of these older women and widows, living alone either in an independent living facility or in their own homes, are not getting enough exercise anymore. Quite often they might have exercised with their late spouse, and now they've stopped. In this case we have simple sensors, like pedometers and other devices, to let elders know how many steps a day they've taken. Taking it a bit further, you can motivate the elder to exercise by using the Internet to convey this information to her fitness buddy, someone she partners with for mutual encouragement. Basically the system lets the other person know through a variety of ways-a graph on a digital photo frame, or a light turning on-that the other person is ready to go for a walk, and that she has only taken 2,000 steps today instead of the 10,000 that is her goal. We try to find opportune moments between these two households to suggest that they go exercise because neither one of them has reached her goal for that day or week.

Hutlock: It's a bit like the instant messaging concept, isn't it?

Dishman: Exactly. It's taking that notion of instant messaging and saying, "Let's get some sensor data in there about how many steps they've taken."

Another prototype we developed is a wind chime with a motor. The chime starts to move to let the person know that his fitness buddy is home and hasn't reached his exercise goals today, and that this might be a good time to call him. So the output of our system can be anything from a graph or a chart on a computer, to something more abstract like a lamp or a wind chime.

Hutlock: Whatever the person is comfortable with?

Dishman: Yes. We've used the term "personal computer" for decades, but really, they haven't been all that "personal"-they've been a box sitting on your desk. But if you look at the recent explosion of wireless laptops and PDAs and the capability of having computing information show up on a television and vice versa, suddenly things can become quite personal. You can adapt the interface to whatever you want. This has been important to today's elders that we've seen. Many of them, especially those with Alzheimer's, are losing much of what they've learned recently, and that includes the computer. So it's devices like a television or a phone where we'll have the opportunities to send messages.

Hutlock: What would you say are the core building blocks for what you're trying to accomplish with this process?

Dishman: The core building block for much of what we're doing is what we call wireless sensor networks. Different households will have different needs, but nobody will want to run cable around their homes to a bunch of sensors, so we will need secure wireless to send data back to a host PC for processing. We're focusing on how to build that infrastructure so we don't have to tear up everyone's walls. If you think about it, there already are sensor networks in many homes. Home security systems are typically sensor networks, although they are usually wired. You want the system to be able to age in place as the person ages in place, so you might not need pressure sensors or cameras tracking fall safety in the earlier stages of decline. But clearly people with Alzheimer's will eventually cross that threshold, so the system needs to be easily adapted and modular.

Hutlock: How does all of this fit in with the CAST initiative?

Dishman: Much of what we're trying to do with some of these Smart Home technologies is set up living laboratories in the continuum of care and find opportunities for an assisted living facility and researchers to build an application together and test it. We've got great technology sitting in our labs, or IBM's labs, or Microsoft's labs-how do we facilitate a national conversation to take some of these technologies and apply them to our aging crisis? That's really what the CAST initiative is about: to apply these Smart Home technologies, many of which have been around for years, to the unique problems of aging and aging in place.

CAST has had more success than we could imagine, in terms of interest from providers around the country. It really is a unique collaborative conversation, and there is a lot of excitement and energy. Hopefully, a year from now we will be talking about at least half a dozen, if not several dozen, seed projects that have gotten off the ground because of CAST.

Hutlock: When will some of this technology actually find its way into homes?

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