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Smart Home in Illinois Serves as Test Site for New Health Products

August 31, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
The McKechnie Family LIFE Home is outfitted with top-of-the-line smart appliances to facilitate research centered around smart and connected homes.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Researchers in Illinois have developed a smart home called the McKechnie Family LIFE Home, an interactive living space equipped with smart appliances and innovation labs to study how home-based technologies may improve health for older individuals or those living with disabilities.

“Facilities like these provide an opportunity to test out technologies before they go into an actual home setting, not many places actually do that,” said Harshal P. Mahajan, assistant director of Research for the McKechnie Family LIFE Home at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

The vision for the creation of the living interactive future environment, which researchers call LIFE, stemmed from the efforts of Wendy Rogers, Khan professor of Applied Health Sciences at the university, who previously worked at another SMART facility called Aware Home at Georgia Tech University. 

Rogers gathered a network of researchers, technology companies, legal experts, and faculty from the University of Illinois to proceed in her goals of constructing the SMART home, and in April 2019 construction began. 

By late Spring 2020, the facility was entirely constructed, and plans were set to open up the space for research until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

There was a soft opening in the Spring of 2021 as the team began hosting a few research studies, and Mahajan said that a formal opening ceremony is set for later this fall.

The site is available for use by researchers from within and outside the university, or companies who can pay for the facility to conduct research and test new products. However, researchers are not currently allowed to enroll participants into trials because of COVID-19 restrictions.

To the naked eye, the LIFE house looks like an ordinary two-bedroom, modern house, with a bathroom with a regular bathtub, standing shower, an open kitchen, dining area, a living room, garage area, and an outdoor green area. 

“We have specifically designed each of these areas with some forward-thinking approaches. For example, the bedroom has an observation area, the guest bedroom can be converted into a home office, and right now is used as open space or office space where we are testing out some simulations,” said Mahajan.

One part of the LIFE home appears to be a typical house, while the other half contains rooms designated for research and observation, and labs where students, faculty, outside researchers, and companies can test smart appliances, robots, or perform observational studies using simulations.

“In the Transport and Transition lab at the LIFE Home, we can simulate scenarios for first responder responses to emergencies such as falls in the bathroom. Such simulations can be used to train and improve skills of first responders. We have ceiling mounted cameras and mics, installed in these spaces to record their interactions with technologies.” said Mahajan.

Mahajan said there are also areas to test robots and understand their practical uses in helping individuals complete daily tasks. 

“We have a robot called ‘Stretch’ from Hello Robot. Older adults can use this personal care robot to perform simple tasks such as picking up keys from the floor or reaching inside a dishwasher, potentially risky tasks that can lead to a slip or fall. Stretch can be operated by the older adult … using a game controller or can be remotely controlled by a care partner,” said Mahajan.

Even the garage of the LIFE home is being used as a testing lab for researchers to better understand how driving assistance technologies, such as driving simulators, can be used in a real-time setting.

The green space behind the house may one day be used to do studies with older adults who want to try outdoor activities such as gardening, and researchers will evaluate how these activities improve the individual’s mood and quality of life, or perhaps the space will be used to test lawn mower robots. 

“Being a rehabilitation researcher, I understand the importance of thoroughly testing products with the actual end users before they go to market and then into someone’s home. The LIFE home research center provides a great opportunity for such in-depth evaluations, and not just to the manufacturers of smart technologies but also to researchers who want to achieve better outcomes for older adults and individuals with disabilities,” said Mahajan.

Previously, Mahajan worked as a researcher on a study that examined individuals with traumatic brain injuries and the problems they face in performing activities around the kitchen.

The study examined development and evaluation of a smart “Cueing” kitchen equipped with sensors that could provide information to the user such as whether appliances are turned on or off. Apps such as this can help make these appliances universally accessible.

“Smart sensors and devices have been around for a while now, and they are becoming more popular and affordable, but one of the challenges that still remain is interoperability between these devices,” said Mahajan.

“Sometimes the user interfaces to these devices are not accessible to older adults and individuals with disabilities and that can lead to the technologies not used at all or not used to their full potential,” said Mahajan. 

Mahajan said there is also the issue that most smart devices and appliances need to be connected to the internet to function, putting individuals who do not have access to broadband at a disadvantage. 

However, Mahajan said there are multiple open-source projects aiming to achieve a hybrid approach, where appliances can connect to the internet sporadically without the need to be connected all the time. 

“The smart technology market is changing really fast, and it is hard to predict which sensors or hubs will still be operational and supported 10 years from now. That may be one of the reasons the institutions and construction companies are hesitant on putting smart sensors in their buildings. They are taking an approach of installing smart devices such as smart lights that are easier to swap out,” said Mahajan. 

While the product market will always be changing, the LIFE home will remain in Illinois as a permanent testing site for maybe the next new smart home device. 

“The long-term goal is to help design technologies and interfaces that contribute to quality of life for all individuals,” said Mahajan. 

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