Everyone talks about the "ageing" society when large numbers of elderly people need home care. Now German researchers have unveiled a "smart" house which is programmed to help elderly residents live at home with dignity.
The scientists at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute say the model house combines existing technology with cutting-edge, future-oriented technology.
The house reminds residents when to take their medication, and it automatically monitors heart and respiration, makes sure no stove-top burners are left unattended and turns off water taps to prevent a sink or tub overflow.
But you don't have to build the whole house. A "smart" bathroom mirror is a start.
At the recent Cebit IT trade show, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems displayed a touch screen mirror that can remind people to take their medicine, wash their hands or brush their teeth.
Actually, such a mirror is not a futuristic dream. The hardware behind Fraunhofer's electronic bathroom is not at all new, and the custom software runs on a regular PC, said Gudrun Stockmanns, who works in Fraunhofer in Duisburg, Germany.
When the medicine cabinet is opened, a display in the middle of the mirror tells the person how many pills to take. Stockmanns said Fraunhofer envisions linking the mirror with a care provider, which could remotely monitor whether a home-bound patient is actually taking medication and brushing their teeth on a regular basis.
As many older people have arthritic conditions which make it difficult to operate water taps, the mirror also has displays which turn the water tap on or off or regulate water temperature. Another display symbol can be used to raise the entire sink basin and toilet, a feature that is enabled in Fraunhofer's prototype.
For people who wear family radio frequency identification tags, the bathroom would know that person's preferences and display the appropriate icons on the mirror, befitting medication dosages and height of basin and toilet.
"We want the system to learn your routine," Stockmanns said. "When you go in the bathroom, it registers how you use it."
The bathroom is only the start. Kitchens, bedrooms and all other parts of the "intelligent" home will become "user-friendly" to accommodate individual needs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE in Kaiserslautern, Germany, are creating these intelligent environments. The scientists are developing information technology concepts for a system that collects detailed environment information via a network of numerous, unobtrusively installed sensors that analyze and respond to specific situations.
"Through this technique we make the environment intelligent. Using many hidden sensors, the system monitors the daily routine of the occupants," explains Martin Becker, head of the Ambient Assisted Living research department at IESE.
"Risks can be detected and it is possible to assess whether the situation appears to be deteriorating, or most importantly, whether an emergency exists," he says.
Sensors in doors, toilets, taps, light switches and carpets detect every activity and record them electronically. Above all, this is important if the user needs professional care one day.
Doctors or care personnel can see from the computer records what personal hygiene tasks the person under care has completed, how often he or she has visited the bathroom, used the toilet, or whether he or she has fallen down.
In case of an emergency, the computer automatically alerts the chosen contact person or calls the care centre.