Think back on the last two weeks: try to remember how you spent your time at home. How many hours did you watch television? How many times did you open the refrigerator, and what exactly did you eat? How much water did you use? And did you remember to take your vitamins? Out of context, these questions may seem trivial. But together, they create a comprehensive portrait of everyday activity. And that could lead to better indoor air quality and energy management, technologies that simplify–rather than complicate–everyday tasks, and advances in personalized home health care.The only problem is that gathering this kind of mundane data is often difficult and tedious. But MIT’s PlaceLab aims to get around that problem by inviting volunteer test subjects to live in a sensor-rich apartment where researchers can monitor everything from how long they leave a window open to exactly what time they wake up. This information will make it easier for researchers not only to study everyday human behavior but also to develop better tools with which to do so.
The lab is a joint project between the MIT House_n Research Group in the department of architecture and Tiax, a product development and research firm in Cambridge. “Too often you have the idea in the academic realm or the small company, and you’ve got a customer-facing organization, and the research that makes it credible to go from here to there is often what’s missing,” says Roger Edwards, director of the biosystems group at Tiax. The PlaceLab research, funded by government grants as well as corporate sponsors, will help bridge that divide.
The PlaceLab is, by all outward appearances, a typical one-bedroom, Ikea-clad Cambridge apartment near Central Square. Volunteers spend 10 to 14 days living there as they would in their own homes. But behind the sleek cabinetry and wall panels are more than 350 sensors and dozens of cameras and microphones that can record every movement and activity of the apartment’s inhabitants. “It turns out that not much is known about continuous living habits of people,” says Kenan Sahin ‘63, PhD ‘69, CEO and founder of Tiax, who along with Kent Larson, MIT’s director of research in the PlaceLab, conceived of the idea nearly three years ago.