Health & Fitness

Creepiest pad ever, or the healthiest? How a data-gathering home might keep you alive

Home is where the data are.

Few other places hold the potential to collect so much information about you — and possibly make you healthier.

Researchers now want to explore the possibilities of a house or apartment crammed with sensors that track everything from how you look in the mirror, to the way you walk from bedroom to kitchen, to what you flush down the toilet.

A home outfitted with the right sensors might hail an ambulance when you collapse with a heart attack, or mean the difference between living alone and surrendering to nursing home care.

A University of Kansas professor, using $51,000 in combined grants, is working with fifth-year students this spring to build a prototype of what might simultaneously be the creepiest apartment imaginable and the healthiest.

“If we can collect all this information, maybe we make you healthier or more independent,” said Joe Colistra, an associate professor at KU’s School of Architecture, Design & Planning. “It would ultimately serve those with ailments best, but it has the potential for entire communities.”

In return for the collection of some of the most private information imaginable, he and others imagine housing that would bolster the health of communities and allow more people to live independently.

Colistra led the project with a $30,000 grant from the American Institute of Architects and $21,000 from Mozilla’s Gigabit Community Fund, which looks for technologies that rely on super-fast home internet connections like those introduced in Kansas City in 2012.

It’s unclear whether the home health sensors would tie up massive amounts of broadband, something Kansas City has in surplus. But Colistra said the presence of beefy home internet connections in the market that can move up to a gigabit of data in a second “raises the issue of what could you do with unlimited broadband.”

For starters, listen to footfalls.

Colistra and his collaborators are designing floors with accelerometers and strain gauges in floor joists. Strain gauges are already cheap and used to monitor bridges or to alert first responders going into high-rises which areas of a building are sturdy and which are about to collapse.

Put that same technology into a smart apartment, Colistra said, and you can keep track of whether a resident is active or sedentary. More advanced devices in the future might detect a change in gait — possibly spotting early signs of Alzheimer’s disease or picking up on a limp that might signal someone has had a stroke.

For now, the team at KU is building modular floor panels made of lightweight steel. At first, the researchers were going to use force plates, which measure compression when someone steps on them. But they’ve turned to measuring vibrations in the floors.

“We’re looking at how we optimize the floor to be a better sensor,” said Matthew Fadden, a structural engineer in KU’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “It takes some work.”

Even as the price of technology and manufacturing brings the cost down over time, outfitting housing with high-tech floors would likely add significant costs to construction.

Still, they argue the investments could ultimately save money by avoiding costly nursing home care. Spending $15,000 to outfit a home with smart floors that detect health problems, they reason, could eliminate the cost of a $50,000 hospitalization.

While the floors in Colistra’s future home listen to footsteps, a smart mirror could spot growing moles or lesions. It might detect asymmetry in a face that signals a mild stroke.

A smart toilet could measure the user’s hydration levels and send a message to an automated pill dispenser to increase or decrease diuretic dosages.

Colistra imagines LED lighting systems tuned to a resident’s circadian rhythms, which guide sleep patterns. The right amount, and correct color, of lighting can produce the melatonin levels in the evening that make it easier to sleep. The right lighting could also summon cortisol in the morning for better wakefulness.

Smart floors are new. Much of the other technology exists elsewhere. Smart toilets, for instance, can already track body weight, check blood sugar and register urine temperature.

Yet incorporating high-tech toilets into an apartment can be tricky, Colistra said. Construction needs to be refined to power them and collect data and, in the sensor-happy home of the future, combine the information they gather with smart floors, smart beds and other health-tracking gadgets.

“We’re looking at prefabrication to tie these things together and to bring the costs down,” the architecture professor said.

Much of the health monitoring could be done with wearable technology built into Fitbits and Apple Watches. But the researchers say that approach requires users to play a role in the data collection, which can be difficult with an older population and people with memory problems.

“What you learn is that compliance is difficult,” said Fadden, the structural engineer. “We want to put people in a situation where it’s just there, where they don’t have to do anything.”

Fadden and Colistra said they recognize the obvious privacy implications. They say the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, would protect any medical records. And any resident of a place that’s tracking what happens in the bed and bathroom would need to be fully aware of the details collected about their lives.

Colistra imagines health insurance companies might one day provide discounts to people willing to be monitored so closely.

“It’s got to be transparent,” he said. “People will have to be aware about what’s happening.”

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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