How the Aware Home Works

What if instead of being tied to home computers, we had technology that existed all around us and learned to anticipate our requests? That's the world of ubiquitous computing. See more pictures of home design.
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Imagine a house that knows where you are at any given moment. One that can pass messages between family members, streamline the tedious process of uploading and preparing home movies and photo collections, and tell you how much energy you're consuming -- maybe actually saving you a bit on the power bill. What if it could tell you what the weather's like outside, call an ambulance if you get hurt, remind you if you forget to take your medicine or help you find that darn remote?

Home Design Pictures

Sound too good to be true? These are just some of the features homes of the future might have. Different technologies that could be used include RFID tags, wearable computing devices, home networking systems, gesture technology and LCD touch panels. Homes could be flawlessly integrated, embedded with technology and capable of operating independently of direct human orders, while at the same time providing exactly what we want, an idea known as ubiquitous computing.

Nowadays, many people are waiting until later in life to start families. Frequently, they have young children right around the time mom and dad start to run out of steam and look for other living options. This kind of monkey in the middle is often referred to as part of the sandwich generation, meaning they're responsible for the care of young and old family members at the same time. Oh, and they're usually working full-time too. Add to this the fact that their children and/or parents might have one of any number of chronic conditions, from diabetes to dementia and autism to Alzheimer's; dealing with it all can get a little tough.

And they're just one example of a family type who could make good use of the wonder-house mentioned above. Elderly people who desire to stay living in their own homes -- called aging in place -- could benefit from many of those same features.

All of these possible functions of a house -- a house aware of its residents, their activities, and their needs -- have been the basis of studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. A residential laboratory allows its researchers to examine how people use technology in the home and how technology -- both current and future -- can be shaped to cater better to the user and enhance the whole experience.

­On the next page, let's take a look at where the idea for the Aware Home originated from and where researchers hope the project will lead.

Building the Aware Home Program

This 5,000 square foot home houses the Aware Home Research Initiative. It contains two identical simulation apartments, one on the top floor and one on the ground floor, along with additional research space in the basement.
This 5,000 square foot home houses the Aware Home Research Initiative. It contains two identical simulation apartments, one on the top floor and one on the ground floor, along with additional research space in the basement.

Let's start by taking a little closer look at how the Aware Home got started and what the goals of the project are.

The Aware Home Research Initiative commenced in 1988, and the Georgia Research Alliance built the Aware Home through a grant. The project is broader in scope than just that abode though, and researchers from Georgia Tech not only study and develop their own areas of research, they also collaborate with other academic and corporate bodies, sharing the knowledge they learn.

Since its beginnings, the research initiative has moved forward on a variety of fronts, combining aspects of healthcare, education, entertainment, security and, of course, technology. The Aware Home project has drawn together researchers specializing in a wide-range of fields such as computer science, psychology, health systems, engineering, architecture, assistive technology and industrial design.

In the future, the folks involved in the Aware Home project, along with their many collaborators, sponsors and partners, plan to continue exploring issues related to domestic life and the development of ubiquitous computing in the home. Goals of this research initiative include efforts to find out what technologies people have the ability (and the desire) to use in their everyday lives. They also hope to increase collaborative efforts and improve everyone's understanding of the optimum ways an Aware Home could serve people.

There have been some concerns raised in regards to an Aware Home's potential level of invasiveness into people's lives. Because of this, research is also being conducted regarding privacy and the ethical use of monitoring equipment. Another area of concern that's being looked into is the possibility of security risks. A hacker in your network could wreak havoc on your home life.

Despite this, enhancing the Aware Home's ability to detect changes in health and instances of slow development could prove increasingly beneficial in our day-to-day lives. Those technologies, along with the development of more advanced robotic companions (who wouldn't want one of these) have many potential areas for expansion. To take a close look at how some of these technologies function, check out How Smart Homes Work.

On the next page, we'll examine how the Aware Home can help when someone opts for aging in place.

Aging in Place

An Aware Home could help you take prescriptions on time.
An Aware Home could help you take prescriptions on time.

There comes a time in many people's lives when they need to decide whether they'll enter a nursing home, move in with family and friends or tough it out on the old homestead. Increasingly, people are choosing to spend their golden years the same way they spent all their other years -- living independently in a home of their own. For cases such as these, the Aware Home Research Initiative is helping develop a lot of useful solutions. To learn more about the aging in place phenomenon and the impact it's having on home building, read How is an aging baby boomer generation changing the design of homes?

Probably the most obvious design elements of a senior's Aware Home would concern the ways it's adaptable for people dealing with chronic conditions. The halls and doorways are wide enough to pop off a few wheelies in a wheelchair, and the bathroom comes with handy rails. In case an elevator becomes a priority, there's a section of the house that could easily be converted into an elevator shaft. Don't get your hopes too high: Elevator installation is very expensive, but having the potential space ready can cut the cost significantly. For more tips on preparing a house for someone farther along in years, read How can chronic care management be integrated into home design?

And ensure dinner goes smoothly with a cook's collage.

Apart from these physical attributes, an Aware Home could offer several other technologies to assist someone aging in place. Digital family portraits and discrete motion sensors allow family members instant access to updated information on their loved one's condition and recent activities. There's a program to help people keep track of their medicines with reminders when it's time to take a prescription, advice on potential drug interactions and other tips to keep their health at a premium level.

Another possible application would take photos of the person while they were cooking. That way, if their memory is going downhill they can keep better track of what step of the recipe they're on. This is just one of the many ways an Aware Home could be used to boost someone's failing memory.

An Aware Home could also be programmed to take environmental readings, such as measuring the temperature in the house and questioning the resident if it seems too hot or too cold. It could track how often a person eats and how mobile they are. If the worst should happen and an elderly person hurts him or herself or becomes ill, the house could take the necessary steps to get them help.

­Now that we've seen some of the ways an Aware Home could enhance the life of an elderly person, let's take a look at how it could be of service to whole families on the next page.

The Sandwich Family

Devices like this message center could help family members keep in contact with each other on busy days.
Devices like this message center could help family members keep in contact with each other on busy days.

In the case of a sandwich household, many of the technologies on the last page could prove very useful here too. But there've been other potential ideas kicked around that could also assist families with children -- especially if those children have developmental delays, learning disabilities or emotional disorders.

Starting when children are born, their development could be monitored and tracked so parents can see if any behavioral or developmental trends are developing that they should be aware. Children have many milestones in their early years, and knowing which ones to check off the list can be critical if there are issues. Plus, you'll never get a better baby monitor than this house.

In the same manner t­he Aware Home could help with organizing the healthcare of a senior, it could also assist with therapy of children with disorders such as autism. Keeping track of the progress a child makes with their parents, as well as any other caregivers and therapists, could be important to successfully monitoring their progress and introducing improvements. The Aware Home could also provide a safer environment for a child with asthma by monitoring his or her breathing through something as simple as an mp3 player.

But helping with the kids and knowing (through force-sensitive Smart Floor tiles) who's raiding the fridge for a midnight stack wouldn't be the extent of an Aware Home's usefulness. It could also provide a digital message center -- a neat and organized way for everyone to stay current with each other's plans. Or it could be connected to a home security system, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors -- and emergency services in case one of them goes off.

Raising kids, working full-time and possibly juggling the care of an aging parent doesn't leave a lot of free time. Long searches for crucial items like car keys, wallets and cell phones can throw a day totally off track. An Aware Home could be able to come through and save the day, guiding you to them in just a few seconds. It could also help save some cash by taking care of gray water reclamation, swinging the blinds open when it's sunny and flipping off the lights when no one's in the room.

And let's not forget the enhancements an Aware Home could bring to home entertainment. For example, sharing videos collections and photo albums on social networking and personal Web sites is becoming increasingly common -- but how much time does uploading, tagging and captioning everything waste? One of the ideas behind the digital media research is to give people back the time they now spend processing photographic and video memories so they have more time to enjoy having memorable moments in the first place.

­Ready to kick back and let your home help you out with some of those tedious chores? On the next page, check out some links with more information about networking.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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