Intelligent ambient technology that uses sensors and actuators to dynamically control lighting or heating, warn if a window has been left open or automatically alert emergency services in the event of an accident has come a long way in recent years. For tech-savvy younger generations, smart homes that can be controlled remotely or intelligently control themselves are becoming popular. Meanwhile, intelligent systems are also being put to use in care homes and assisted living environments to help carers keep older people comfortable, safe and secure. But in between these two models are a large number of older people who could benefit from ambient technology but find it either too difficult to use or potentially too intrusive.
'Though they can see the benefits of ambient technology, many older people have never used a computer and find learning new technology intimidating. Meanwhile, many don't want someone else monitoring or controlling their home environment... it's a little too much like ''Big Brother'',' notes Elena Avatangelou, a senior researcher in the EU-funded 'Service orientated programmable smart environments for older Europeans' (Soprano) project.
The challenge therefore is to develop systems, devices and interfaces that older people can use comfortably, intuitively and independently in their home environments, without facing the often steep learning curve of smart home systems and without feeling they are continuously being watched.
Avatangelou and other researchers working in the Soprano project, supported by EUR 7 million in funding from the European Commission, addressed the issue by developing an Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) system designed, not only by experts, but also by older people themselves.
Their research, involving 25 academic and industrial partners and telecare service providers in seven countries, focused on developing smart IT-based assisted living services aimed at promoting independence for older people and improving quality of life in the context of Europe's aging population. By following an Experience and Application Research (E&AR) design methodology and holding regular focus group meetings with end users, the researchers ensured that even the smallest details of the Soprano system were fine-tuned to meet the usability and acceptance requirements of users.
Based on an open architecture that allows different modular applications to be installed and configured depending on individual user needs, the system can intelligently monitor a user's home, tell them if someone is at the front door, remind them to turn off the oven or take their medication, monitor their health and alert carers in the event of a fall, among many other potential applications.
'Instead of looking at a list of user requirements, developing a prototype and testing it, we continuously consulted end users about what they wanted, what they liked and what they didn't like,' says Avatangelou, a senior project manager at Exodus, a Greek IT company and the coordinating partner of the Soprano project. 'The results were often quite surprising.'
For example, developers initially thought that displaying a series of coloured icons on the TV or a touch screen to control different applications - such as to see who is at the door or check if the windows are closed - would be an intuitive interface. End-users, however, actually responded better when the icons were replaced with numbers as the interface more closely resembled the buttons on a TV remote control, which they were more accustomed to using.
Among users unaccustomed to technology, such seemingly simple tweaks to interface design and functionality can make a huge difference to usability and, most importantly, acceptance.
Similarly, an application to encourage users to do mild exercise was found to have high acceptance because the developers used a virtual avatar rather than recordings of a real person as in most exercise videos.
'Trial users were more comfortable doing the exercises as they didn't feel they were trying to compete with a younger, fitter person,' Avatangelou says.
Keeping users in control
Crucially, the system was designed to give end-users as much control as possible, while still being easy to use. To mitigate 'Big Brother' concerns, the system intelligently responds to events in the home environment and only alerts carers if it detects that something is seriously amiss.
'Whereas other AAL systems would alert a carer instantly if a user forgets to take their medication, for example, the Soprano system will remind the user first and only alerts someone else if the reminders are continually ignored or if feedback from other sensors indicate a more serious problem,' Avatangelou explains. 'How and when such alerts appear can be configured for each user depending on their specific requirements and environment.'
In extensive laboratory and in-home trials involving more than 300 participants in Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, end-users rated particularly highly applications that helped them remember to do things: whether taking their medication, turning off the oven or closing the windows before they go out. They also appreciated the increased feeling of safety and security the system provides, knowing that they will get help in the event of an accident or fall, but without feeling that their every action is being monitored.
As Bas Goossen of Stichting Smart Homes, a Dutch project partner, points out: 'Elderly people who are in need of the technology should not adapt their lives to the technology, but we should take care in adapting the technology... adapting it to their lifestyle so they can live their lives with the help of this technology.'
Though the Soprano system is still a prototype, the open architecture and middleware has been made available under an open source license and the project's findings about how best to design AAL systems for older users are being made available to other researchers working in the field.
'There's been a lot of interest in our work and we are currently looking for funding sources to continue the research,' says Avatangelou. 'Given Europe's aging population, increasing numbers of people stand to benefit from this sort of technology over the coming years, but the biggest challenge is how to pay for it and who will pay for it.'
The SOPRANO project received research funding under the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme.