The Digital Apartment

PlaceLab researchers are studying how people interact with their homes. Their goal: design useful residential technologies.

Gleaming hardwood floors. Recessed lighting. Computers gathering data on every flick of a switch, flush of a toilet, or opening of a cabinet. It’s all in an apartment nearing completion in Cambridge, MA, that doubles as PlaceLab, whose creators say it’s the world’s most elaborate residential laboratory for studying how people interact with their homes. Packed with discreetly installed sensors, microphones, and cameras, it’s a lab for prototypes and testing health-care systems, smart appliances, the latest environmental controls, and whatever else companies and academics want to study.

The 90-square-meter space is a joint project of MIT and Tiax of Cambridge, MA. While academic labs and companies like Intel, Philips, and Microsoft have been showing off smart-home demos for years, the leaders of the Cambridge project say this is the first one that’s both heavily sensor-riddled and also an actual apartment where people will live, albeit as voluntary test subjects for periods of about two weeks. “Nobody has built a scientific instrument like this, to measure the complex interaction of people and technology,” says Kent Larson, an architect and director of the MIT research consortium involved in the project. “You can only go so far in an academic or corporate research lab.”

First up: a study of what people actually do about diet and exercise, compared to what they say they do. Key objectives down the road include the testing and development of technologies that remind people to make healthier decisions. Such reminders could be anything from audio messages to changes in lighting hue or intensity.

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Tiax even hopes to evaluate the sensing technologies themselves, says company president Kenan Sahin. Everyone recognizes that an aging population will need better monitoring (see “Monitoring Mom,” TR July/August 2003). What’s not so clear is which technologies-wearable radio-frequency identification bracelets, cameras, or sensors on dishes, medicine bottles, and cabinet doors-are most practical. Tiax hopes to provide manufacturers hard data on which systems function well and might be easily packaged and sold to builders. “We want to know how to embed them into the infrastructure of the home affordably,” Sahin says. “The home is a system; people interact with and are part of that system.” This much is clear already: there will be plenty of ways to watch how that interaction unfolds.

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