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Lab homes in on home life

Section perspective of PlaceLab
Section perspective of PlaceLab

A "living laboratory" operated jointly by MIT and TIAX, a collaborative product and technology development firm, will allow researchers and companies to study how new technologies, materials and design strategies will change the way people live.

Dubbed the PlaceLab, the project is located in a new condominium building in Cambridge, Mass. It is an apartment-scale facility that will be occupied by families who volunteer to participate in experiments ranging from one week to several months. The first of a series of research projects will be launched in the fall.

"The PlaceLab is a new kind of scientific instrument--a 'microscope' to carefully study people and their interaction with new technologies in a living environment," said William J. Mitchell, dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. "With the extraordinary pace of technological development, and with the potential for innovations to dramatically improve people's lives, it's essential that researchers better understand how to design systems that people will want to bring into their homes."

The PlaceLab is a signature project of Changing Places, a joint MIT Department of Architecture and MIT Media Lab research consortium. It will allow MIT researchers to move from lab prototypes to testing and evaluating systems with real people in an actual home environment over a longer period.

The PlaceLab will also be used to test technologies for the Supportive Homeâ„¢ concept pioneered by TIAX, in which the elements of a home, from layout to appliances to fixtures, are designed to improve the health, comfort and lifestyle of its occupants. The services of TIAX will be available to help MIT corporate partners leverage their relationship with MIT and the industrial consortium.

Researchers will be able to study the interaction of PlaceLab volunteers with technologies using a sophisticated array of wearable devices and sensors located throughout the facility. High-priority PlaceLab research projects include:

  • Proactive health--With the aging of baby boomers and the resulting stress on the health care system, medical experts agree that developing cost-effective, home-based early-warning health systems, as well as techniques to positively affect behaviors related to diet, exercise and medication adherence, could make a huge difference in the quality of life for millions. PlaceLab researchers will test non-invasive biometric monitoring devices and techniques for effective and non-irritating human-computer interactions that encourage healthy behaviors.
  • Daily activities--PlaceLab researchers will use sensing infrastructure to develop techniques to recognize patterns of sleep, eating and socializing. Changes in such activities are believed to be early indicators of emerging health problems, especially among the elderly. Many proactive health approaches require that information and reminders be delivered in the context of daily activities at the point of decision.
  • Wearable devices--PlaceLab researchers will test the viability and acceptance of home-based wearable biometric monitoring systems such as EKGs and blood pressure devices.
  • Indoor air quality--PlaceLab researchers will test air-quality monitoring and energy efficient, health promoting ventilation and space conditioning products.

"PlaceLab is an exciting venture that will bring us one step closer to bridging the gap between academia and industry and, more importantly, further the development of technologies that can positively change the way we live," said Kenan E. Sahin, president and founder of TIAX. "Rather than a showcase for new technologies, the PlaceLab is a living laboratory where scientists can work with industry to develop products that enhance functions of a home.

"At the PlaceLab, we plan to foster greater collaboration between the academic and business worlds to help ensure that innovative ideas and products go beyond where traditional lab research often ends."

Co-directors of the PlaceLab will be Kent L. Larson, an architect and director of MIT's Changing Places consortium, and TIAX's Richard F. Topping, a leader in the application of advanced technology to appliances and building systems.

Participating corporate sponsors include Motorola, State Farm Insurance, British Telecom, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and SRP. Academic partners include experts from the world-class Boston teaching hospitals and the Harvard School of Public Health.

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