Researchers studying technology effects on domestic lifestyle in unique residential lab

April 30, 2000

A residential laboratory that will be constantly connected via broadband communications opened May 1 to study how technology interacts with and affects domestic lifestyle.

The Georgia Institute of Technology Broadband Institute Residential Laboratory will be capable of knowing the whereabouts, activities and vital medical profiles of its inhabitants. Thus, it can effectively use the always-on communications capability to enhance lifestyle and family connections. The three-story, 5,040-square-foot home will host a broad range of computing and telecommunications research funded by federal money and corporate support. Its design and construction was funded by a $700,000 grant from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA).

"Research in the Residential Laboratory will focus on the confluence of communications connectivity and lifestyle computing," said Broadband Institute director Dr. Nikil Jayant.

"One of our goals is to discover technology combinations that can unobtrusively enhance lifestyle in the home of the future - both for special classes of inhabitants such as older citizens and infants, and for families in general," added Jayant, who is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a GRA eminent scholar.

The Residential Laboratory includes two independent, two-bedroom living areas. One will mainly serve experimental purposes; the other will host actual residents, initially students and eventually an elderly person or family.

One major project already under way at the Residential Laboratory is a College of Computing research initiative called "The Aware Home." A team of researchers is using the facility to investigate ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, and aware environments. This research pushes the concept of an environment where computers are constantly present, seamlessly integrated and applied for everyday uses.

Aware Home researchers want to build an environment that can sense the inhabitants by seeing, hearing and measuring contact through a variety of sensing technologies, including video, audio, motion and load.

"We will be breaking new ground with the Aware Home," said Dr. Chris Atkeson, an associate professor of computing. "The computer will be aware of who people are and what they are doing, rather than needing a human being in charge of the remote control, for example. This is the next generation of computing."

Aware Home researchers are simultaneously focusing on human- and technology-centered studies in the Residential Laboratory. "The human challenge with this technology is as much a challenge, if not more than the technological challenge," said Dr. Gregory Abowd, an associate professor of computing.

Researchers want to prevent information overload, avoid invasion of the occupant's privacy and create practical ubicomp applications for the everyday user. They have determined the most important potential users initially are senior adults.

An Aware Home project called "Aging in Place" is aimed at finding ubicomp technology applications that will allow senior adults to live independently in their homes as long as possible, said Dr. Beth Mynatt, an assistant professor of computing.

Specifically, "Aging in Place" would program the Aware Home to: sense and identify potential crises, and then automatically contact services as needed; augment a senior adult's memory; and track behavioral trends by creating social connections between senior adults and their relatives.

In the technological arena, Aware Home researchers are studying how ubiquitous sensing can give computers a decision-making context, like humans have.

"Imagine a computer that knows you are near it, knows you are looking at it, and knows who you are and what you are trying to do," said Dr. Irfan Essa, an assistant professor of computing.

Researchers are building a context-aware sensor and computer that will perceive things and interact with users. Sensors will detect a user's location, facial expressions and gestures, for example.

Meanwhile, Atkeson and other researchers want to build fundamental models of human behavior to train computers in decision making. "Can we start to learn the preferences and model the behavior of people in the house by watching what they do?" Atkeson said. Another technology-centered investigation involves a system called the "Smart Floor," a natural input device that can identify and locate a person based solely on their footsteps. The system can correctly identify the user more than 90 percent of the time. The system's applications are in trend tracking, crisis intervention and security.

Finding lost objects is yet another tracking and sensing technology researchers will study in the Residential Laboratory. The system uses small radio-frequency tags attached to various objects (keys, wallets, glasses and remote controls) the user wants to track and a long-range indoor positioning system to track these objects. The user interacts with the system via LCD touch panels in the house. The system guides the user to the lost object using spatialized audio cues (e.g., "Your keys are in the bedroom.").

Meanwhile, other Georgia Tech research groups will be conducting studies in the Residential Laboratory. Those groups include researchers in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), the Information Security Center and the School of Textile and Fiber Engineering.

Specifically, textile and ECE researchers hope to collaborate on adding wireless connectivity to a weavable motherboard designed by Dr. Sundaresan Jayaraman, a professor of textile engineering. Senior adults wearing the motherboard could send out signals from sensors monitoring their medical condition.

Other upcoming Residential Laboratory projects include experiments in wireless multimedia, ubiquitous computing and private telemedicine in the home. Researchers expect ubicomp and aware technology such as being studied in the Residential Laboratory could work its way into the mainstream within a decade. "The current technology has people telling computers what to do," Atkeson said. "The next generation of technology will have computers understanding what people are doing and what they want."
For technical information, contact:
Dr. Nikil Jayant, 404-894-7285,
Dr. Gregory Abowd, 404-894-7512,
Cory Kidd, Operations & Research Mgr., 404-545-1046,

Additional Contacts:
Dr. Irfan Essa, 404-894-6856,
Dr. Beth Mynatt, 404-894-7243,
Dr. Christopher Atkeson, 404-894-1076,
Dr. Sundaresan Jayaraman, 404-894-2490,

Georgia Institute of Technology

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