In July, researchers monitoring a wired, high-tech apartment in Boston welcomed the first occupants. This 1,000-square-foot testing ground for human interaction with home technology systems, called PlaceLab, features miles of wire stowed within the walls and cabinetry, and hundreds of sensors that monitor human activity and environmental conditions. In a recent 10-day experiment, researchers collected about 350 gigabytes of data, which is enough to fill about 75 DVD discs.

Kent Larson, director of the House_n Consortium at MIT, said it’s difficult to anticipate how people will interact with home technologies without observing this interaction. “To try to design a system for the home without actually studying how it is used in that complex mix – (you) often end up with products they can’t actually integrate in their lives. We thought it was time to build a living laboratory to study these things in the context of everyday life – studying how people interact with (these home systems) requires a facility like this.”

PlaceLab was built into a residential condominium in Cambridge, Mass., and is occupied by volunteer residents who agree to be monitored for a period of 10 days while they are inside the lab. Residents can come or go as they please, Larson said.

In one of the early experiments at PlaceLab, researchers have been monitoring the diet and exercise habits of occupants, while another experiment has focused on indoor air quality and the relation of temperature and humidity to allergies and dust mites, for example.

According to a description of the facility, some experiments will relate to activities of daily living, such as sleep, eating, socializing and recreation, while others will relate to human-computer interaction that help to foster a better diet and exercise regiment, and also encourage adherence to medication schedules.

Researchers hope to learn what influences the behavior of people in homes, whether technology and architectural design can promote life-extending behavioral changes, and how technological controls in homes can save natural resources and improve health.

The feasibility of wearable, physiological monitoring equipment will also be studied at the lab, along with more advanced sensing, lighting and control systems.

Two residents at a time participate in PlaceLab studies.

And no, don’t expect PlaceLab to be broadcast as a new reality television show. Larson said that researchers have gone to great lengths to deal with privacy issues, and the occupants and their guests are fully informed as to what types of monitoring are performed while they are in the lab.

Kenneth Wacks, a pioneer in the home systems industry and a consultant in home and building systems, said the industry had its start in the late ’60s and grew significantly in the 1980s. The home systems industry, he said, is focused on home automation technologies, such as integrated lighting, security, heating and energy management systems.

Wacks worked in the past on a National Association of Home Builders research project called Smart House. Though that effort has dissolved, it helped the industry to progress, he said. The industry has been working to develop standards on installing data networks in new homes, he said.

There is a range of home systems on the market, ranging from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. “We see this as the next big wave of consumer products,” and in the future people may piece together integrated home systems much like they currently buy and link up components such as televisions and VCRs, he said.

Larson said that the work at PlaceLab will hopefully lead to the development of new technologies that will be available to consumers. “This collaboration will help move technologies created in academia to the marketplace, where they have an opportunity to impact our quality of life.”


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