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How can technology help people to live independently in their own homes?

Kirsty Marrs |29, April, 2022

by Lloyd Taylor

In September 2020, we held an online event discussing whether technology can support independent living. There was a lot to cover as there is huge amount of tech that has the potential to be used in this field.

The main areas covered were:

  1. Telepresence
  2. Humanoid Robots
  3. Smart Speakers and the Internet of Things (IoT)
  4. Security and Privacy

 

Telepresence

In this strange new way of doing things, many of us are relaying on video calls to carry out our daily work and to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. Although this technology now literally fits in our hands, it can be useful to have more of a presence than a smart phone or computer can allow. For example, the Kubi is a desk mounted tablet holder that can be controlled remotely by the person at the other end of the call, giving them the ability to move the tablet 360 degrees and even able to look up and down. This allows them to look around the environment of the owner of the Kubi. Two ways this extra functionality could be useful are firstly, if during a conversation, the owner of the Kubi wants to talk about something in the room the user at the other end could move the tablet to face the item under discussion without the Kubi owner having to do anything. Moreover, if the Kubi owner happened to be busy in the kitchen the person on the other end could keep them in frame.

We also talked about the Double Video Conferencing Robot. This type of system again let someone at the other end control the device, however unlike Kubi it is mounted on a wheeled platform with the tablet mounted around 4ft from the ground and is able to move around the environment. One of the features of this machine is that it can detect obstacles in environment such as people walls and furniture. This ability allows the robot to aid the user in maneuvering it through the environment by ensuring it does not knock into things or people.

Humanoid Robots 

Anyone who has been to an event we have attended is likely to have met our Pepper robot or even maybe Nao. My colleague Hannah also talked about robots in care homes during her event so if this subject caught your attention you might want to check out her blog.

There is a great potential within this field for extremely versatile devices to be deployed alongside human companions. Further, the humanoid features can make the robots more acceptable to their humans. Back in 2019 EPIC were able to deploy the Stevie robot (you may have seen him on the front cover of Time magazine) to Reflections Day Centre in Camborne Cornwall. We are about to publish the results of that study so I can’t say too much. However, I can say that Stevie ticked a lot of boxes with both the staff and guests at the centre.

Smart speakers and Smart devices

My colleague Katie did a very good presentation on the use of Smart Speakers in care homes, which I recommend, you check out. The key feature of a smart speaker whether it be an amazon Alexa, google home or one of the numerous others is the voice interface. Like we use Graphical User Interfaces (GUI’s) on phones and computers, these smart speakers let us launch apps and give commands using our voice. This feature has given rise to a large range of products that can be linked to your smart speaker giving you the ability to control them with your voice. For example when I walk into my office I give the command “computer lights” and the three desk lamps and a monitor, I have connected to a smart plug which is activated by my smart speaker, turn on. In my situation, if I am honest, I am simply trying to make my office as close to the enterprise as I possibly can. However, for someone with mobility issues being able to control everyday items such as light with a simple voice command could make a huge difference.

The linking of technology does not stop at turning on lights. It seems that every item in our homes is starting to come available in some smart version. For example, I recently moved and tried to convince my partner that we should buy a smart kettle. She said no. And you might also think that it it’s a bit too much to have a kettle that does more than boil water. However, if you had a loved one living in their own home, getting a notification on your phone that the kettle in their home has turned on at 9:36 could give you some peace of mind without the need for more intrusive methods.

Security and Privacy

When the EPIC team are out and about at events showing off and talking about the huge range of eHealth applications and their potential uses, the most common questions we get are focused around privacy and security, and rightly so. There have been many stories in the press about large companies abusing their user’s data. Amazon even admitted that user data had been kept after requests for it to be deleted. These issues are concerning and come down to whether or not we are happy to use our data as a commodity giving us access to cheaper technology or if we would rather have privacy and pay more. One example of this is with Apple products, Apple state that they put user privacy first. There does seems to be some merit here. Although their voice assistant, Siri, came to market before many of its competitors, it is lagging behind in ability. A closer look reveals that this is because Apple restrict themselves on how they process the data that could be gained from user interactions with Siri.

There have even issues of smart devices lacking in security to the extent that they can be accessed by those without permission.

Although this can put some people off, we need to remember that these are new technologies and in many cases, the companies making the devices are focused on getting them to market quickly. And that we as consumers have the power to change how these companies develop their tech. If we start to prize security over price then companies will put more focus on securing their products. Moreover, in time, as with all things tech, the price of that security will come down.

Summary

As you can tell, there is a huge range of products that could be used in Domiciliary Care not just for those living at home but also for those supporting them. And, although there are some fantastic products already on the market this is enormous scope for new or improved technologies to be developed and brought to market.

What support could EPIC offer to Cornish SMEs interested in developing technology that could be used to help support people in their own homes?

EPIC can support eligible start-ups, Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) and social enterprises to explore the development of innovative technologies to support individuals health and care needs.

In the first phase (2017-2020) the EPIC project supported several projects looking to enhance the use of technology within the care sector.

We can support a range of businesses based in the region, perhaps you are an established business with an interest in pivoting your product to the health and social care market?

Perhaps you already have an eHealth product you would like to develop further or trial? Or perhaps you are an individual or student interested in establishing a new start up business?

The support is entirely bespoke for each business and could include access to funding through our challenge fund, the opportunity to be linked to a University of Plymouth student to support innovations through partly funded internships, academic support from the EPIC team to evaluate ideas or facilitate co design processes and piloting.

If you have ideas in the area of health technology, why not get in touch with EPIC to discuss further? Feel free to email epic@plymouth.ac.uk or for further information specifically on our business support, contact our Business Engagement Manager matt.silver@plymouth.ac.uk