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RFID chips watch Grandma brush teeth

11:50 17 March 04 news service

Tiny computer chips that emit unique radio-frequency IDs could be slapped on to toothbrushes, chairs and even toilet seats to monitor elderly people in their own homes.

Data harvested from the RFID chips would reassure family and care-givers that an elderly person was taking care of themselves, for example taking their medication. Unusual data patterns would provide an early warning that something was wrong.

A group of Intel researchers demonstrated the technology to US government officials in Washington DC on Tuesday. The event aimed to show how embedded wireless chips could help tackle the care problems created by the rapidly rising number of senior citizens. Such networks have already been deployed to monitor the environment and scan for empty parking spots.

"This technology could enable people to age in [their homes] with greater dignity, safety and independence," says Eric Dishman, director of Intel's Proactive Health programme.

As we live for longer, the proportion of the population that is elderly is growing quickly. "As a result, the health system is facing a collapse," explains Kent Larson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture, which also demonstrated technology at the event. "The centre of gravity has to move from the hospital and into the home."

Probabilistic reasoning

Intel's solution requires an elderly person to wear a glove embedded with a RFID reader the size of two AA batteries. The reader clocks any tagged objects that the person touches and wirelessly transmits their unique IDs to a central PC, which records the time.

Algorithms on the PC use "probabilistic" reasoning to infer what the person is doing. For some tasks, merely picking up an object such as a toothbrush is enough. But to determine that someone is making a cup of tea, a series of objects and their order must also be known.

Concerned relatives can then check on their loved one over the internet. The computer could even be programmed to pick up on unusual patterns automatically and alert relatives through an email or SMS message.

In the near future, Intel researcher Brad Needham plans to incorporate the readers in a necklace, to avoid the awkwardness of a glove. In the longer term he hopes to deploy a reader that does not have to be carried around. Instead of relying on proximity to record an object, the reader would use the movement of an object to infer that someone is using it.

Intel has already designed an RFID system that tracks a moving robot. The robot is tagged with three orthogonal chips. The reader not only picks up their unique IDs, but uses the strength of the three signals and how they change over time to detect the robot's movement. This technology could be transferred to the smart home, says Needham.

Smart bed

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Other companies and universities also showcased wireless healthcare technologies including a bed that monitors a person's weight and movements. Larson's team at MIT demonstrated embedded systems that rely on a network of embedded cameras and temperature sensors to make inferences about behaviour.

But Don Patterson, at the University of Washington and an Intel intern, points out that RFID tags are cheaper and require no infrastructure to be deployed. In fact, they will soon be present on most objects anyway, he says, as supermarkets and manufacturers use them to speed up supply chains and catch shop lifters.

"It's just a question of whether we use them in some way that benefits the consumer as well as the shop owner," he says.

RFID technology has alarmed privacy advocates in the past. But Needham points out that for the elderly it is a trade-off: "This technology could mean difference between being able to stay in your own house or moving to a nursing home. Would you rather have a chip on your toilet seat or a person in the bathroom with you?"


Celeste Biever


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