WSU study uses sensors to keep seniors living alone safe

WSU study uses sensors to keep seniors living alone safe

WSU study uses sensors to keep seniors living alone safe



Posted on October 2, 2013 at 3:57 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 2 at 7:07 PM

PULLMAN, Wash. -- The elderly may be able to stay in their own homes longer with the help of some Washington State University researchers’ work.

The project, a collaboration between computer scientists and psychologists, is looking at how sensors can track everyday routines and prompt users if they forget something – whether it’s medication, keys, or a stove burner.

A network of sensors detects energy use, light, temperature and the opening or closing of doors. The tiny sensors can also be attached to objects such as pill bottles and detect movement, so they can track whether someone is remembering to take medications daily.

Last week, researchers with the Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems Smart Home shipped out smaller versions of the set of sensors they use, a “smart home in a box.” The researchers received a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant last month for the new project, which has volunteers in places such as New Zealand and China. To develop a broader database, researchers are including people of all ages.

Almost anybody can install the kit and have their own smart home, said lead researcher Diane Cook, a professor in the College of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“The purpose of shipping out these kits is to get a really large database of smart home data from different kinds of families, individuals around the world, so that we can better see how these activities look for different cultures and people,” Cook said.

Cook estimated the cost of everything included in the kit would be around $3,000, but the kits are free to participants with the help of the grant.

At WSU, an apartment outfitted with the sensors has served as a “beta tester” since 2007. There the researchers have determined what core functions to include in the kit, she said.

Participants in the elderly study visit the apartment in Pullman for a few hours at a time and perform tasks such as watering plants or cooking. Researchers watch from video cameras upstairs and compare what they’re seeing with what the sensors record.

“For example if they’re cooking as a task, we want to know if they’re using the right pots and pans and ingredients, so we can monitor potential difficulties they’re having in doing simple daily routines,” Cook said.
Residents can be reminded with prompts on a tablet or speakers if they veer from their routine.

Researchers are also considering sending automatic alerts to a caregiver.

The sensors have some limitations, said Kayela Robertson, one of two psychology graduate students living in the Pullman smart home apartment.

The sensors can be confused by pets and having multiple people in a residence. They also do not yet detect falls and automatically alert someone, but she said that’s one of the goals.

Some may have privacy concerns, but Robertson said it’s usually not the sensors that bother people as much as the cameras, which aren’t normally part of the smart home and are only included in the Pullman apartment to help the researchers.

Robertson's roommate, graduate student Christa Simon, said privacy is a concern of the researchers, but for the elderly participants, it's a matter of weighing pros and cons.

"I constantly think about that when we're debating's it going to affect their day?" Simons said. "Well, how's it going to affect their day when they're not even living in their home anymore?

"For people who want to stay in their homes longer, that's a big deal, so they're willing to give up some of their ceiling space for some motion sensors," Robertson said.

CASAS is currently looking for volunteers, both for the elderly study in Pullman and for participants of all ages who want to try out the "smart home in a box."