Golden years (of unobtrusive technology)

The Nordic society, as many other ones, is getting old. Elderly people to keep living independently and safe in their homes will rely – as well as their families – on monitoring technology. Icelandic company e21 believes that using a home monitoring system does not have to mean spying, and is going to offer a smart alternative to online cameras and wearable devices.

At present, 25 percent of the entire Nordic adult population is represented by elderly people. In 2030, this number will rise to more than 40 percent, and 45 percent in 2050. However, employment in healthcare, including nursing, is not growing. It all means that Nordic countries must start preparing themselves for a dramatic increase of elderly people in need of new solutions that will increase their quality of life.

Authors of ideas dedicated for elderly and disabled people took part in Nordic Independent Living Challenge, a competition that was organised by five Nordic capital cities and Nordic Innovation institution.

E21, an Icelandic company that develops a home monitoring system combining discreet sensors and software with alarm response and service design, was among 25 semi-finalists of the competition. The company wasn’t selected for the final of the competition, but has already started cooperation with such giants as Falck, Philips and Vodafone, and has a great chance to succeed on the market in the near future.

Home safe home (without spying)

Without a need of installing cameras or motion detectors that some people may consider as spying devices, the invisible system called Butler discreetly detects whether a resident of an apartment makes everyday activities, such as using a kettle or a coffee machine, turning on TV set or a radio, using a toilet or a washbasin, on the basis of daily cycles of electricity and water consumption.

If any abnormalities occur, such as extraordinary long water flow or a lack of consumption of electricity or water for few hours, the system sends a notification to relatives or a caretaker, suggesting them to call or visit the elder person to check whether he or she is safe and sound.

E21 Butler can help older people live in their homes and make them feel more safe. It also makes their relatives feel relaxed knowing that they will be notified if help is needed.

In mid-March, I visited e21’s office in Reykjavik and interviewed Halldor Axelsson, the Chief Technology Officer of e21 Ltd. Below you can find the transcription of our talk. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

 

TrendNomad.comAt many consumer electronics fairs I find more and more home monitoring systems that include internet cameras, motion sensors and wearables. Your approach is different.
Halldor Axelsson: Some people do not feel comfortable when they see cameras and different kind of sensors around them. Wearables seems to be more acceptable, but they work only when a user put a device on his or her body. I heard about a man who took off his smart bracelet before taking a shower. Few minutes later he had a heart attack. The deactivated device couldn’t notice this occurrence and didn’t call for help. People need a system that works in the background.

Are you against using wearables by elderly people?
H.A.: No, I’m not, but in my opinion wearables, panic buttons, internet cameras, medicine dispensers, GPS gadgets etc., should be extra options expanding the possibilities of a basic system that you can always rely on.

A so-called panic buttons that are offered by private companies, in theory, make it very easy to call for help. But in reality, many elderly people do not dare to push such buttons, as they don’t know who will come with help, or how much the service will cost.

What is essential in your idea?
H.A.: When someone spends a lot of time at home, he or she quite regularly uses electrical devices and turn on and off the water. It is not difficult to build a mathematical model of daily activity of that person. It is enough to monitor water flow in pipes and electricity consumption to check whether the elder person that lives alone is safe and sound. When something bad happens – for example, a stroke or a faint – home appliances and water taps are not used or stay turned on for a much longer time than usual. In that case, the system sends an alert to relatives and caretakers suggesting to contact or visit the person they care about.

What if there is another explanation of a longer than usual usage of an oven? Let’s say, cooking for Christmas?
H.A.: Analysis conducted by our cloud server takes into account whether Christmas or someone’s birthday is coming. The system will not send an alert if it finds another explanation of an unusual pattern.

How long does the system learn someone’s habits?
H.A.: It starts recognising deviations in daily patterns after less than one week of learning someone’s daily routine. Naturally, the longer it works and the more data it process, the more advanced and detailed the pattern is.

e21 Butler credits TrendNomad
The Butler’s hub is connected wirelessly to the cloud server by Vodafone’s cellular network. Clients will receive alerts even when a power blackout occurs. Photography by TrendNomad.com

How many sensors do I have to install at home?
H.A.: One sensor should be put in the main electrical box. The second is designed to be attached to a water pipe. The first one detects energy consumption and studies electrical patterns. Every kind of device you plug into a socket has its own electrical pattern. The system recognises whether a current electricity consumption is made, for example, by a washing machine, a dishwasher, a kettle or a TV set.

The second sensor detects water flow. There is no need to screw or cut the pipe. Installation is as simple as attaching a magnet. It listens to the sound of water flowing inside a pipe. Noise level varies depending on how much water you use at the moment. The sensor works wirelessly on a battery for two years.

On the basis of data generated by both sensors, the system builds a model of a daily activity of a person that lives alone.

We can find more and more home appliances such as kettles, coffee machines and fridges connected to the internet. Maybe they can also deliver information about a home activity to relatives of elderly people?
H.A.: Off course every device connected to the internet could be used for that purpose, but instead of putting sensors into every device, it is far more practical to monitor electrical and water systems of the house. Besides, our solution can also notice some health issues. If a given person goes to the toilet once, twice or three times every night, the system may suggest visiting a doctor.

A good monitoring solution is not about getting data about everything. It should be as simple as possible and operate invisibly on a background.

What is the plan for the near and more distant future of e21 Butler?
H.A.: We’ve started testing the system at private homes. In about three to six months we will know how does it work. In April, our team will expand to five full-time employees. The plan is to commercialise the system within a year. We haven’t decided yet whether it will be offered as a one-time purchase or with a subscription plan. Certainly, we want to make it an inexpensive, affordable solution.

Probably the product will be launched on the market branded as Heartbeat of the Home. At the beginning, we will focus on Scandinavian countries, and then we will go further. China is a very interesting market, as there is a strong tradition that young generation takes care of elderly people. We thought that our target group will be only private homes, but maybe the system will be also supported by a public sector.

 

If you have any other questions to Halldor Axelsson, you can send him an email at hax@e21butler.com.

The main photo is a shot from „The e-butler” video.

www.e21butler.com

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