RESEARCHERS FROM THE MASSACHUSETTS Institute of Technology and consulting group TIAX combined to build PlaceLab, a 900-square-foot research facility/condominium where new housing technologies and design concepts can be tested and evaluated.

The idea is not to build a Microsoft home of the future that shows off the latest gadgets. Instead, PlaceLab, located in Cambridge, Mass., is a research facility that will provide academics an opportunity to work with industry manufacturers, designers, and home builders to test ideas and bring the next generation of home technologies and home medical applications to market.

“The need for PlaceLab grew out of what I like to call the innovation backlog,” says Kenan Sahin, president of Cambridge-based TIAX.

Sahin says there's a backlog of ideas in the university research labs and no ready way for researchers to take their ideas from the prototype stage to mass production. It takes industry to mass produce and market products, he says. TIAX was formed to bridge that gap, and PlaceLab will be a forum for much of the research.

PlaceLab was designed with a series of sensor systems. Depending on the study, researchers will activate or deactivate switch sensors on cabinets and doors, cameras, and microphones as well as sensors for water use, electricity, air quality, and movement detection. Subjects who volunteer to be evaluated will live in PlaceLab for roughly two weeks. At press time, two initial studies were completed and a third was under way.

Keep in mind the idea is to evaluate behavior. In an air quality study, for example, if the pollutant count in PlaceLab goes up, an alert would go off. The alert could be a buzz, a siren, or a computer-based voice warning the volunteer. Place-Lab researchers would then ask questions such as: How did they respond to each technology? Which one was most effective? Which one was most annoying? Since PlaceLab researchers can observe the volunteers, the data they collect are based on firsthand knowledge.

“I don't think PlaceLab is a product-testing lab,” says David Hanchette, vice president of marketing for OnQ Technologies, which provided PlaceLab's structured wiring. He says OnQ has other labs that test the throughput and overall performance of its products.

“PlaceLab is an idea-generating laboratory,” he continues. “From an industry perspective, we need that—we need people who are way out in the forefront.”

Here are three highlights of PlaceLab's research agenda:

Component-based building. PlaceLab researchers will test component-based electrical and plumbing systems. The idea is to develop complete electrical and plumbing systems that can be easily installed throughout the home as components. Bensonwood Homes of Walpole, N.H., will build a series of prototype homes. The first prototype is scheduled to be built by mid-2006 in New Hampshire, and additional prototypes will be built every 18 months until 2010. The prototypes will later be for sale in a new community.

Indoor air quality. TIAX received a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science to design a commercially feasible humidity control system that will reduce allergen levels related to dust mites in the home. TIAXwill use PlaceLab to research the relationship between humidity levels and dust mites. The goal is to develop a more cost-effective dehumidifier that can be easily integrated into a home's central air-conditioning system.

Daily activities. The sensor infrastructure will be used to evaluate how people use different rooms in the home. Researchers will observe everything from how the volunteers use the latest networked appliances to how they fold laundry. By understanding how they respond, the hope is that designers can better configure floor plans, rooms, and furniture.