University Creates Medical "Smart Home" To Study Future Health Technology

October 03, 2001

Nestled within the University of Rochester Medical Center, amid laboratories where researchers search for cures to disease and down the hallway from nurses and doctors who care for hundreds of ill patients, is a cozy apartment-like setting where residents can kick back, relax, and enjoy their day. A coffee table, microwave, couch, television and other household gadgets dot the landscape.

But a closer look reveals some features that are out of the ordinary even in today's fanciest homes. Cameras swivel overhead. A sophisticated computer system helps patients keep track of items like their eyeglasses or their keys, and the kitchen is equipped with a new kind of packaging to signal the presence of dangerous bacteria in food. Spaces between ordinary walls are stuffed with gadgetry, including banks of powerful computers.

It's all part of a new "medical smart home" that has been created and equipped by University of Rochester engineers, scientists, and physicians. Creation of the smart home is the latest accomplishment of the University's Center for Future Health, founded two years ago to develop new technologies to help people maintain their health in their own homes. The relaxed look of the home belies a revolution in health care, where people have the power and the technology to keep healthy longer than ever.

Researchers will use the home to create and try out an array of futuristic, modular health care devices. Among the prototypes currently being tested:

  • Personal medical advisor - a conversational computer designed to help people make decisions about their health. One current scenario includes a discussion of the types of medication available to treat a headache, and suggestions about which might be most appropriate.
  • Memory assistant - a camera system that helps people find items like their eyeglasses, keys, or pills.
  • Gait monitor - software and a camera system for use in the home to detect subtle changes in the way a person walks, oftentimes the first visible symptom of disease.
  • Smart package/bandage - a system to detect certain types of bacteria in food or in wounds instantaneously.
  • Melanoma detector - a camera system designed to detect subtle changes in the skin and alert a person to see a doctor.
  • Rash identifier - an automated system that helps users distinguish between potentially harmful and relatively harmless skin rashes.
  • Tag-based home health assessment system - an infrared-based tool that observes patterns of normal activity and checks for sudden changes, which can be signs of disease.

Since the center's goal is to develop technology that will enable people to stay healthy and live in their own homes, most of the projects have down-to-earth research goals that benefit many people. Helping people understand which medicine they're supposed to take, for instance, or helping them track down their car keys or eyeglasses are not research goals found in many laboratories, but such situations become critical when they face people who want to remain independent when their health becomes fragile.

"There are all kinds of gadgets in development around the world, but most are not designed for use in the home," says electrical engineer Philippe Fauchet, Ph.D., director of the Center for Future Health and professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "Usually, homes defined as "smart" look at features like architecture and entertainment. Ours is geared toward keeping the occupants healthy - that's a really smart home."

A key feature of the home is that occupants can live as they normally do and don't need to do anything special to benefit from the technology: There is no software manual to read and no posing for cameras. Instead, people go about their daily activities, and the devices work together in the background to keep people healthy, alerting a resident only if something of possible concern has occurred. This would allow people to react to changes in their health much more quickly, Fauchet says. If they know that their wound is infected, they're more likely to seek out treatment; or if they can provide evidence that a mole has indeed changed size, a doctor is more likely to squeeze that patient in immediately.

Thus far the center has attracted funding to support two dozen researchers working on nearly as many projects; current sponsors include the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles as well as major industry sponsors DPC, Eastman Kodak, and Intel. Other companies taking part in the research include Rochester-based Lucid; Atlanta-based Dartfish, a digital-imaging company; and Evident Technologies, a high-tech company based in Albany.

Since the founding of the center two years ago, researchers have filed for four patents having to do with "smart" bandages, sensor-equipped socks, and software to monitor minute changes in the skin. While some prototypes may be ready for the marketplace within a year, others are at least a decade away from widespread use.

The home is much more than a test bed for new devices, its creators say; the real power comes when the home is wired up for many devices. For example, the memory assistant uses its cameras to keep tabs on items like medications, and the medical advisor can provide detailed information on those medications. A person might ask, "Where are my red pills?" and then, "What do I need them for," and "What if I forgot to take them when I woke up today?" Then the medical advisor responds verbally, thanks to sophisticated software written by University experts who are among the world leaders in creating a conversational computer.

It's by bringing such experts together with physicians that such exciting new technology is created, says Alice Pentland, M.D., medical director of the center and James H. Sterner Professor and Chair of the Department of Dermatology. She says some of the basic knowledge necessary to develop useful, futuristic medical devices now exists in the laboratories of scientists and engineers, but oftentimes there is a gap that needs to be filled by scientists working together with physicians who are directly aware of the needs of patients. Physicians at the Medical Center working closely with engineers and scientists on River Campus and at the Medical Center have narrowed that gap considerably.

"For generations doctors have been telling their patients to stay healthy, but we've done a poor job of giving patients the tools to help themselves stay healthy," says Pentland. "In addition, people want more say in their health care. These tools are designed to serve both needs. This is the future of health care technology."

Center for Future Health website

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