By Charles Wardell
MIT's vision of how we will live in our homes is as radical as its notion of how we will build them. Larson believes that within 10 years, new homes will be replete with sensors. Consumer goods manufacturers are already developing low-cost radio frequency (RF) identification tags to replace bar codes. (Standards are being developed at MIT.) Most building material and appliance manufacturers have thought about how they will fit sensors into their products, and at least one has devised a way to embed low-cost tag readers into countertops.
The combination of RF tags and sensing surfaces will let a central server keep inventory of everything in the home. Other sensors will help the home learn, and anticipate, the occupants' living patterns. Responses could range from adjusting heat and lights to making sure there's enough French Roast coffee in the freezer.
But the most important innovations are apt to be medical technologies that let people age in their own homes. For instance, MIT researchers have already built a prototype ring that monitors blood oxygen--a factor in heart and respiratory conditions. One of Larson's students is developing a congestive heart failure early warning system. Devices like these will identify problems before there is a crisis and transmit warnings to sensors embedded in the home. The home will then alert the wearer.
How will the home get the right information to the right people at the right time? House_n's point man for solving this problem is Steven Intille, a computer scientist whose mission is "to get computers to perceive the world like people do." Intille has designed a digital table, a prototype of which sits in a small research lab next to his office. Place a box of cereal with an RF tag on the table, and it will flash a message telling you what's in the box, its calorie count, and fat content. When combined with other sensors that identify who is sitting where, personal reminders like when to take your medicine could pop up behind your cereal box so that only you see it.
Privacy concerns are perhaps the biggest roadblock to such technology. Do you really want sensors tracking you and perhaps broadcasting the results over the Internet? "If we don't address privacy, we're only doing half the job," says Larson. "People will readily accept this new technology if the benefits are clearly apparent, and they are satisfied that privacy protections are in place. If people have the expectation that their home will help them live four years longer, they will gladly accept some risk to privacy."