A major focus of PlaceLab research is preventative health care: technologies and services to help people remain healthy, autonomous, and comfortable in their homes as they age.

PlaceLab: A Living Laboratory

Kenneth Wacks

A major focus of PlaceLab research is preventative health care: technologies and services to help people remain healthy, autonomous, and comfortable in their homes as they age. 

by Kenneth Wacks, Ph.D.
Home & Building Systems Consultant
www.kenwacks.com


A unique residential research facility called PlaceLab was inaugurated last year in a Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment.  PlaceLab combines an actual living environment for volunteer occupants with a research laboratory to create a "living laboratory" with a twofold purpose:

  1. Investigate how to create new technologies that improve our quality of life.
  2. Establish a new model of cooperation between academia and industry.

PlaceLab is a joint initiative between the House_n Consortium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and TIAX LLC.

House_n Consortium

The House_n Consortium was established by the MIT Department of Architecture to explore the combination of architecture and home systems.  I am advising Kent Larson, the lab director and a practicing architect, about integrating home systems technology into building design.

The House_n Consortium has an ambitious agenda:

  • Rethink the process of design and construction so places of living are more responsive to the needs and values of the occupants.
  • Develop the technologies and infrastructure of housing to support anticipated applications, ranging from home-based proactive health care to distributed energy production and conservation.

Housing, like offices, factories, and cities, has been viewed as static, but existing in a world where technology is constantly changing and improving.  Technology will have an impact on the static world.  House_n is investigating how buildings can be designed to evolve dynamically by adapting as technology is changed and upgraded every few years.

Two of the major research initiatives of House_n include PlaceLab and the Open Source Building Alliance (OSBA).  The goal of OSBA is to promote creativity and innovation in housing and associated technologies, including fabrication and supply-chain management.  A companion project to OSBA is the Open Prototype House Initiative, in which residences will be constructed using OSBA principles.

The development of PlaceLab and applications are reviewed in this article.

PlaceLab, MIT, and TIAX LLC

PlaceLab is operated cooperatively as a research facility by MIT and TIAX LLC, founded by Dr. Kenan Sahin.  Dr. Sahin, an entrepreneur and former MIT faculty member, envisions companies such as TIAX as providing a bridge between corporate and university research.  TIAX was formed out of the Technology & Innovation unit of Arthur D. Little, Inc., a company started in 1886 by Arthur Dehon Little, an MIT engineering student.

TIAX purchased the apartment before the interior was constructed.  MIT and TIAX built out the space, as shown in Figure 1, with an infrastructure to support a variety of studies related to:

  • Home-based healthcare and wellbeing
  • Energy conservation
  • New sensor technologies and applications
  • Indoor air quality
  • Technologies that motivate behavior change
  • Issues related to privacy.

Figure 1 - The PlaceLab Research Apartment

PlaceLab research

The apartment is occupied by volunteers who agree to live there for varying lengths of time, typically a few weeks, "for the sake of science."  Installed in PlaceLab are hundreds of sensors.  Wired and wireless networks interconnect the sensors with computers that analyze the data.  This allows researchers the ability to study nearly every aspect of life in the home, including what people are doing and the environmental conditions inside.  The facility has been designed with the requisite technology to offer researchers the maximum amount of flexibility for designing studies to observe behavior.  Researchers are using PlaceLab data to learn how to create new technologies and integrate them into everyday life.

A major focus of PlaceLab research is preventative health care: technologies and services to help people remain healthy, autonomous, and comfortable in their homes as they age.  New pattern recognition algorithms process data from sensors embedded in cabinets, appliances, and plumbing fixtures to recognize patterns of sleep, eating, socializing, recreation, etc.  This information can enable innovative applications such as more effective methods of communications and medical warning systems that may indicate incipient health problems, especially in the elderly.

For example, computer-based algorithms and pattern recognition software might detect sequences of activities from the sensors and cameras to determine:

  • Did the occupant get out of bed?
  • Did the occupant use the bathroom?
  • Did the occupant eat?
  • Did the occupant fall?

Such crisis detection or early warning systems are the starting point for PlaceLab.  Ultimately, the researchers intend to extend such systems to prototyping and testing strategies that proactively keep healthy people healthy.  This environment may encourage people to live in their houses as long as possible before considering assisted living or nursing homes.

Many home system products involve complex technology intended to be operated by untrained consumers.  Successful products hide this complexity while making the features and benefits obvious and simple to select.  Therefore, a key element of home systems is the user interface.  Such interfaces span a range that might include:

  • Indicator lights
  • Single-line display on an appliance
  • Remote control unit
  • PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)
  • Wall-mounted display
  • TV
  • Computer screens
  • Voice annunciation and recognition
  • Gesture recognition

The user interaction with machines via such devices is an area of study that is important to the success of home systems.  The ease and accuracy of such interactions are difficult to predict during product design and field tests with focus groups and surveys.  PlaceLab combines a highly-instrumented research lab in a home setting to facilitate studies of such user interface devices.  PlaceLab is also being utilized for studying issues related to energy conservation, indoor air quality, wearable systems, and privacy concerns.

Research proposals are evaluated according to guidelines established by an advisory board consisting of members representing both industry and academia.  Co-directors of PlaceLab Kent Larson (MIT) and Kenan Sahin (TIAX) make the final selection of projects and schedule the research.  They rate expected results of the proposed research by the potential impact on industrial innovation and the potential for a positive impact on society.

Some of the research results may be appropriate for commercialization.  TIAX is available under separate business arrangements to assist industrial sponsors in the transition from academic research to product and service development.

PlaceLab infrastructure

PlaceLab incorporates an extensive structured cabling network to support sensors and communication equipment, providing the tools necessary for the research.

About 1-1/2 miles of data wires have been installed.  Category 6 (CAT 6) twisted-pair wires carry Ethernet, telephony, and audio.  Coaxial cables support public cable TV and in-house cameras.  In addition, empty conduits have been installed to accommodate future wiring.  A wireless network has been installed to connect additional sensors.

A sophisticated lighting control system is planned.  The intensity and color temperature of light in each room can be controlled dynamically, allowing light to be used as communication tool and for aesthetic purposes.  The heating and cooling system contains multiple zones, a heat exchanger, and air filtration to enable dynamic control of environmental parameters.

PlaceLab Technology

Instrumentation to allow interaction with occupants is embedded in 15 cabinets located throughout the apartment.  The cabinets have been custom-designed to complement the interior and to house remote sensing technology unobtrusively.  Each cabinet contains a variety of sensors, cameras (visible and infrared), and other equipment as shown in Figure 2.  The components of the cabinet can be reconfigured as needed for the current research topic.

Figure 2 - PlaceLab Cabinet with Embedded Sensors`

Additional wired and wireless sensors are located on the objects that people touch and use, including cabinet doors and drawers, controls, furniture, passage doors, windows, kitchen containers, etc.  They detect on-off, open-closed, and object movement.

The interaction of the occupant with home technology can be captured by the sensors and by audio, video, and still image recording capabilities.  The sensor data within each cabinet are collected via a local communications bus connected to a home network.  The home network links all the cabinet equipment to a bank of computers in a large wiring closet inside the apartment.

PlaceLab is being used to study the privacy implications of technology based on sensors in the home.  For example, researchers are investigating data from minimally invasive switch sensors on the cabinet-doors, appliances, and plumbing to develop a rich understanding of patterns of activity without relying on cameras or microphones.

PlaceLab has been designed to protect the privacy of the volunteers.  Occupants are fully informed of the technologies in the facility.  When a volunteer is living in the home, all data are stored locally.  In some studies computers will process the data, but no data will be transmitted over the Internet.  When the study is complete, the occupant is given an opportunity to review the data before being collected from PlaceLab by the researchers.  At no time are raw data available online.

Research opportunities

MIT and TIAX LLC are offering industry a unique opportunity to conduct research at PlaceLab into a variety of topics involving human interaction with household technologies.  Thus, PlaceLab is a new type of "scientific instrument" that allows researchers to test and evaluate technologies for the home in a natural setting.  Companies are encouraged to contact Deenie Pacik at MIT (dpacik@media.mit.edu) or Twig Mowatt at TIAX (mowatt.twig@tiaxllc.com) for further information about House_n, PlaceLab, and TIAX LLC.

© Copyright 2005, Kenneth P. Wacks

Dr. Kenneth Wacks has been a pioneer in establishing the home systems industry.  He advises manufacturers and utilities worldwide on business opportunities, network alternatives, and product development in home and building systems.  For further information, please contact Ken at +1 781 662-6211, Fax: +1 781 665-4311, E-mail:  kenn@alum.mit.edu , Website:  www.kenwacks.com .


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