Better (assisted) living through smart cameras

YALE (US)—For seniors living independently, a fall or injury can leave them unable to get assistance for hours or even days. Two researchers at Yale University are pioneering the use of a “smart camera” surveillance system to recognize falls and automatically call for help.

Predictions suggest the number of people over the age of 65 will triple in the next 50 years, and increasingly seniors are choosing to live independently. As this aging population swells, there is an increasing need for technology that can help fill gaps left by a limited care-giving workforce and dispersed families.

Several products to address this need are now commercially available—camera systems and wearable devices. Yale’s Eugenio Culurciello and Andreas Savvides are developing “smart cameras,” harnessing technology to enhance the prospects for independent living.

Acknowledging the serious nature of falls for the elderly, Culurciello, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, tackled the technology of fall detection.

“Approximately one-third of individuals who are 65 and older fall each year,” says Culurciello, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. “While many falls do not result in injury, nearly 50 percent of non-injured fallers cannot get up without assistance and the period of time they spend immobile often affects their health outcome.”

He has developed a surveillance system that definitively recognizes falls and automatically calls for help. “It’s simple, it’s inexpensive, and it preserves the privacy and independence of the person being monitored,” says Culurciello.

The device requires no more than a “smart camera,” a high-speed camera with a microprocessor that analyzes rough outline images and distinguishes between patterns of motion. It is programmed to “know” the difference between someone who is sitting, bending, kneeling, walking—or falling. According to Culurciello, videos made from the fall detector information “easily distinguish a person from a box falling off a counter or a cat jumping off a table.”

But, it is not just about the images themselves. Time is the key. Patterns that indicate a fall develop as a series of images over a particular time span. Once the processor registers the downward motion of a fall it waits to see what happens during the next 30 seconds. If there is no motion upward, the alert goes out.

The alert might go to family members, an on-call home healthcare professional, or a medical response teams. “We see it as a practical and personalized way to coordinate families and teams for elder care,” says Culurciello.

But, falls are not the only concern. Dementia and depression are other issues that aging individuals often face and both may call for aspects of assisted living. Savvides, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, applies smart camera technology to evaluate patterns in the way people move around their living areas with an eye to noticing telltale changes in behavior.

Savvides’ system brings a new dimension to the concept of assisted living. He has created a whole-house monitoring system that tracks patterns of mobility for people who are living independently, but need care. He notes, “We can use this system to ask questions like, ‘Is your mother getting out of bed today?’, ‘How much time is she spending in the bathroom or the kitchen?’, ‘Is she wandering around the house or doing the things she usually does?’, and ‘Has her schedule changed?’ ”

While Culurciello’s devices primarily report on the up-and-down position changes of a fall, Savvides’ detectors report on time intervals associated with motion around a living space and deviations from the person’s usual daily pattern. This system also sends out alerts—no button push is required, no privacy violated.

“It’s like having someone watching out for you throughout the day, without needing someone there,” says Savvides, who has set up a test of the system in a small town in his native Cyprus. He envisions use of the device as a public service to citizens in small towns or remote areas.

Savvides notes that the programming is now sophisticated enough to distinguish medical issues like a change in gait that signals an impending heart attack. “With a built-in ‘talk back,’ the device could tell the person to sit down and take medication,” he says. “It is like a personal GPS system that can give directions.”

“This new technology offers a way to provide seamless personal services without the cost and personal disruption of moving to an elder home,” says Savvides. “Elder care comes to you with smart camera devices”

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