“Living lab” studies tech in home environment

Photo courtesy of Jayanth Mohana

There are many opportunities to see innovation in action at Tech. One of these hidden gems is a seemingly ordinary house on West Campus along 10th Street, dubbed the Aware Home.

It is no ordinary house — inside you can explore many of the current and past explorations in the evolving interactions of people and technology in the home environment.

The Aware Home was actually part of a bigger program, called the Aware Home Research Initiative, which was a grassroots movement of several interdisciplinary research groups coming together on campus in 1988. What resulted was 5,040 square foot home that could function as both a living experiment lab as well as a place to create new innovations designed to explore the interaction between humans and technology.

The three-story building has two levels, consisting of a home design each with kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room, all of which are used to conduct experiments to test new technology designs. The basement level contains a workshop to make minor repairs, as well as a conference room, containing several more projects. Brian Jones, a senior research engineer in the Interactive Media Technology Center at Tech, is the current director of this “living lab.”

The diversity and spectrum of the research conducted using the Aware House ranges from looking at environmental questions, like sustainability to medical research for improving the care and monitoring of the elderly through technology. Much of the topics of research are driven by the problems that students, research groups and companies bring to address.

Depending on the focus of the research, the house can be used for  a direct study or to test out an experimental system that was designed in another lab before being implemented in people’s homes.

Jones describes the home’s use, by saying that they “have a highly connected home here, a controlled environment, where you can try things out. Some of our partners, for example, have systems they want to try out in actual home environments. This a great place to try it without doing it in your own home.”

The partners whom Jones refers to are the research groups as well as companies in industry who seek him out in order to test how their technological systems are perceived. Companies, like Belkin and Sense, are in the production and sales phase with technologies that were developed in research here at Georgia Tech.

However, despite the home’s versatility, it has its limitations.

“This place is great for testing things out in a real home environment, but getting real data from people is something we can’t do unless we have someone live here,” Jones

Unfortunately, the “living home” only houses test subjects for a few days at a time and the data is not enough to realistically gauge people’s interactions with the technology. Also, the studies are inherently skewed by the use of human subjects as they probably will not behave exactly as they do at home. To get around this, they also have a volunteer pool of about 600 adults, aged 50 and older, who test technology in their homes for different durations.

The house also supports students who have an idea they wish to implement.

“Often it is students coming to me saying how can we use the home? We try support any number of interest across campus,” Jones said.

Jayanth Mohana, first-year  graduate student in Human Computer Interaction, was one of these students who was drawn to the Aware House.

“I discovered the Aware Home almost by an accident. I was pretty amazed by the amount of sensors here, the potential of the sensors, and the richness of the data you could collect,” Mohana said.

This interest in sensors served as a springboard for Mohana’s current class project, which deals with using a specific technological device to understand and pick up on patterns of human behavior observed in the home. He focuses on sensors that use a wireless communication protocol, like Z-wave, where the sensors are able to pass on information without being in direct range of a controller.

Mohana described the goal of his project as, “What I want to build is a script based system that triggers automatically without you interfering with it.”

This would equate to scenarios where the system can detect that you are leaving the house and can perform actions like turning the oven or stove off.

Another student, Youssef Asaad, first-year ME, came to be involved in the Aware House through federal work study.

“I saw the job and thought it looked interesting. I am very into prototyping and community service. This served as a combination of both. I applied, and when I came to the house I loved it. So I stayed,” Asaad said.

Asaad is involved in several different projects that are conducted in the house. One of the most recent is the development of the Gait Speed Project.

Gait Speed is a medical test that looks at an individual’s speed and mobility to access their health and predict the future decline in their mobility. In the house, gait speed is measured by pressing a button on the wall and walking along the lengths of marked sections on the floor. This system measures your walking speed more accurately than if timed.

Asaad notes, “This will hopefully replace the human need for timing certain tests that need to be timed. We tested the project 70 times last week to see if it was ready to go into hospitals and nursing homes to start doing testing for them,” Assad said.

However, as with any advancement there are certain drawbacks. For the Aware House and projects like it, the drawbacks revolve around the idea of privacy invasion. Particularly, participants are worried about hacking.

“People are hearing in the media of how systems are being hacked and such, but the details of how they are hacked is also important. Like, when the Wink was hacked, yes it was hacked, but you had to be in physical presence of the hub and plugged into it in order to hack it,” Jones said.

Jones emphasized that hacking is always a potential with any of the technology; however, it is important that companies and individuals follow security protocols to protect themselves.

Currently, the Aware Home is undergoing renovation in order to create a smart bathroom, in partnership with TechSAge. One of the main projects being worked on is the creation of parallel grab bars that can not only sense where someone is grabbing them but also how hard.

Another project in the works for this room is the instillation of bathroom floor sensing. This would allow data collection of whom is in the bathroom and how they are standing on the floor. The goal of this project is to develop a bathroom that can adapt to meet the needs of someone with limited mobility.

To learn more about Aware Home, check out awarehome.gatech.edu