‘Caring’ plant looks after owner

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

A house plant equipped with sensors and a computer will get to know you and your routine

Sarah Staples

American and French scientists have created a “caring” house plant equipped with motion sensors and cameras to gather information, complete with a computerized brain that “learns” its owner’s routines and can tell if these stray from the norm.

Equal parts leafy adviser and calming potted friend, the plant — a prototype at Accenture Technology Labs in Chicago that’s expected to be ready for sale within about five years — uses artificial intelligence to know if its owner is eating properly, experiencing fear, loneliness and pain, or suffering from memory loss.

It’s destined for an emerging eldercare market for robotic devices designed to give assistance to those who aren’t ready to move into a retirement village but need assistance to stay safely in their own home. By 2050, 30 per cent of the world’s population will be over the age of 65 and in need of everything from specialized financial planning to solutions for managing the burden of institutional care.

Hiding technology within familiar objects such as plants isn’t only entertaining and commercially marketable. It’s designed to increase seniors’ comfort with technology they might otherwise deem intrusive, said Agata Opalach, an Accenture researcher based in Sophia Antipolis, France.

“Assistance [emanating from] everyday objects becomes more acceptable to the person who needs help, it puts them at ease,” said Opalach, who spearheads the global management and IT consulting firm’s Intelligent Home Services Initiative.

“We could have used an artificial plant, but then it wouldn’t have been as interesting,” she said. “People get very attached and emotional about caring about other living things.”

Miniaturized sensors in and around the pot gauge whether the plant itself is getting enough sunlight or water. The rest of its wiring is focused on helping the owner: Tiny motion and pressure sensors, microphones and discreetly positioned cameras feed data to a computer that analyses a person’s gaze, posture, the speed and gait of their walk, and their interaction with other objects in the room, in order to decide if family members or a hospital need to be alerted to a potential problem.

Interaction with the plant doesn’t have to be health-related. Its facial recognition software might deduce the human needs a little extra TLC, at which point it could strike up a conversation.

A forgetful owner could hold up a pillbox to be reminded of instructions for taking the medication, or a framed photograph and ask the plant to identify whose picture was taken. The plant could then project more digitized family photos on to a screen, as a kind of slide show.

The plant is also aware enough to know when its affections are unwelcome. “You don’t want to be surprised by a plant,” Opalach added.

Paul Johnston, chairman of the International Federation of Robotics and a vice-president of the Ottawa-based industry association Precarn Inc., said manufacturers are only beginning to realize the lucrative potential of devices that would let anxious children monitor frail parents’ daily routines, or alleviate the loneliness and boredom associated with solitary living.

Johnson cautioned there are many ways to tackle elder care: Researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, for example, are developing sophisticated experimental cameras to monitor an older person’s home — without the cover of an accompanying plant.

The most valuable innovations may turn out to be robust “helpmate” robots that would assist the elderly in and out of shower stalls or beds, do light housework and make meals — tasks traditionally performed by nurses and orderlies, he said.

“I think we have to separate out the technology’s usefulness from somebody having a new gimmick that’s not exactly useful.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004


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