4.5 Smart Houses - How Can They Help People with Disabilities ?

Bob Allen, Jan Ekberg and Charles Willems


A home which can include the technology to allow for devices and systems to be controlled automatically, may be termed a Smart House. The degree to which this control is exercised is variable being a function of the cost, the person's own wishes and the type of building into which the technology is to be installed. Homes which can automatically adjust the temperature, the level of security and permit efficient communications to the outside world, are of obvious benefit to all, providing they do not go too far and affect the freedom of choice of the person living within them.

The question arises, "How do we decide on the degree of control?" The answer, I believe, is that we do not - the user of the system does, wherever that is realistically possible. The other question is "Where does the Home begin? At the doorstep? At the end of the garden? At the edge of the user's village or Town?" It is important here to examine the user's needs holistically, and work with all persons affecting the user's environment and living activities as well as the user's particular special needs.

A Smart House can be used to help people with physical and/or mental disabilities, mental illness, blind or deaf people, or people who are elderly. The electronic industry is developing Home Systems technology to serve a broad public. This can contribute to the comfort of modern living. Both disabled and elderly people can benefit from this technology. A house with a home system can help them to continue an independent life in their own living environment. Many different developers have focused on sub groups from the above, but it is important to stand back from any one section of special needs and see where they overlap to ensure the systems designed to help, are complete and achieve the economies of scale. Often the basic technology is similar, and the important distinction lies in the way the user interacts with it. This question will be examined later under the heading of User Interfaces. In addition, specific examples will be described, from existing European Smart House sites.

In addition to the above issues, examination should be made of the role within this whole concept, that can be played by communications systems and informatics and the role of international co-ordination and standardization bodies and ways in which technology is likely to evolve due to all factors, from all sections of our populations.

How Does a Smart House Fit within our World ?

As mentioned previously, the concept of a person's home can be quite broad. As well as the "normal" limits, all their daily needs basis must be looked into and they must see how our Smart House fits their needs. It can be useful to consider the person's activities as being conducted within the following environments.

Figure 4-20 shows that the user's many needs can be integrated, both with other immediate control systems, but also within an overall environment to cover their needs.

These different environments are not totally isolated. There is a need for control and other information to pass between them through what are described as "Gateways"- the role of communications is significant in implementing this. We can see straight away, however, that the traditional "Home" has to interact with more immediate systems close to the user and also with more distant ones necessary to permit the user conduct activities of daily living such as work, education or social interaction.

How Can a Smart House Help ?

Within a traditional home environment, automation can assist a person to control a device in another part of the house, inquire into the state of something e.g: is the electric blanket on or off? Is the front door open or closed? It can facilitate communications and enhance both personal and building security. In other situations, the controller can suggest appropriate actions, e.g: should you not turn down the cooker? Why not close the front door? People who have short term memory problems such as those with head injuries or those with Alzheimer's disease may find this feature appropriate.

To a person suffering from a significant level of physical disability, the average staircase can present a formidable obstacle. If technology can reduce the number of times that obstacle must be surmounted, so much the better. Communication technologies can be used to keep people in touch with carers and loved ones, as well as providing the means to reduce the number of journeys to the shops or bank to coincide with the person's wishes. Even apparently simple tasks such as changing the channel of the television can be difficult if movements or hand dexterity are impaired.

The technology employed to automate the home can be applied to other needs. For example, a computer can be an educational or vocational tool as well as the system controller. The advances in communications technology can allow the person to work at home, linked to an employer, or receive training/education from a distant source without leaving home. In addition, people with other special technical needs, can integrate these into the overall system and reduce both cost and apparent complexity. An example could be the inclusion of special interpersonal communication systems, such as those used by people with hearing or speech impairments.

How Can the System Be Implemented ?

Smart Homes can best be realized by using a central data highway within the area to be controlled. The "highway" is often termed a Control Bus and can be implemented using a variety of transmission mediums such as cable, infra-red or radio. The choice is made depending on factors such as necessary speed of data transmission, building design, whether the installation is into a new or existing building and, of course, cost.

Each device, or system to be controlled, requires an interface to the bus. Some bus systems simply allow for on/off commands to be transmitted, others are designed to allow more complex control and hence require more complex interfaces. When designing the bus, these factors must be considered, as well as the ease with which the bus will permit the user to access the Gateways shown in Figure 4-20.

Gateways between the different environments are as yet poorly defined. Using the concept shown in Figure 4-20 the overall picture may be divided into three different levels of control as perceived by the user:

1) the direct mobile environment;

2) the fixed environment, home /public places;

3) the distant environment.

For each of these environment specific solutions are presented in Figure 4-21 and discussed below.

Several technologies have been used to develop gateways between different environments. These are as yet both poorly defined and standardized. Each gateway has its own user interface and as a consequence of this the end user generally needs an array of different user interfaces to be able to communicate with the environ-ment. An integration of approaches resulting in a single user interface that enables data to pass through these different gateways is up to now in an experimental phase. Accommodation of new services and applications can only be carried out by adaptation of equipment or services.

For the direct mobile environment i.e. on a wheelchair, a local bus is used. It is designed to permit interaction between local, directly coupled input devices such as keyboards, joy-sticks, switches and output devices such as telephone handsets, personal communication systems, manipulators, mobility controllers. The TIDE project M3S proposed a specification for such a system, and is now extending its work to cover a wider range of devices that can interface with each other through such a "Bus".

For the fixed environment several "standards" have been proposed for Home Bus systems that will permit varying levels of control of the domestic environment. No clear standard is in place at present, and as such, manufacturers of third party products are unclear as to which interface they should offer with their equipment. In turn, the lack of available products inhibits the development of the bus systems themselves. It is unlikely that this situation will continue for too long and eventually, a clearer course for developers will become apparent. The communication from the user to these Home Bus systems can be mediated by radio waves or infrared signals.

The control of systems for the distant environment i.e. outside the domestic environment, is a matter that will involve Local Authorities, telecommunications equipment providers and large corporate bodies such as banks. COST 219 works with many of these organizations to establish trends. Working groups within the project, have been given related specific tasks such as:

- standardization;
- alarm systems and public awareness;
- access to communication systems;
- navigation systems;
- social issues.

Gateways between these environments are currently poorly defined, as are the technologies that can be used to implement them. A European project has developed an efficient radio link that allows transmission of data from the user to domestic bus controllers (TIDE-MECCS, 1993). It is developed on a technical platform that will readily allow for the inclusion of personal communication systems, artificially intelligent word processors, data communication systems etc. The overall system is as displayed in Figure 4-22.

(Figure 4-22)The MECCS System.

One novel feature in the design is the inclusion of a telephone that is both cordless and hands-free. The telephone can be either included in the unit or used separately where a user's requirements are for less complex equipment. The overall user terminal looks as follows:

(Figure 4-23) The MECCS user terminal.

The User Interface

The user interface is the single component in such systems, upon which everything else will be judged. If the interface is confusing and badly designed, the system will be thought of in that way. Indeed, to make such systems appear simple is an extremely complex thing to do. It is nonetheless, very important.

Whilst the implementing technologies may be, at heart, similar, the interface must be appropriate to the special needs of the user. A person with mental disability may require a less complex screen, presenting him or her with limited choices at one time. The use of a greater number of menus may be necessary, as may be the use of alternative indicators such as pictures or icons. Such a person, in common with those having head injury problems, may benefit from systems which make certain choices for them or suggest actions. Artificial Intelligence is often employed in these cases.

The User Interface should be consistent with all the applications the user may employ from time to time. Hence, the "look and feel" of the system should be the same whether they are accessing their environmental control system, their communicator, their telephone or their local Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) machine.

Such a requirement presents a great challenge to the inter-face designer, requiring the involvement of various clini-cians, engineers and of course, the users themselves. An appropriate development process is shown in Figure 4-24.

The Dutch Perspective

Several projects can be described to illustrate the issue of smart houses from different perspectives. Most of these projects are intended to promote and innovate smart housing by research and development.

In the KITZZ project innovation of home care is the central issue. In a group of houses made available to the elderly, a smart house named "Maathuis" is intended to support elderly, disabled and chronically ill people. It does have a number of stand alone applications like an electronic paging system, optical signalling (for deaf and hard of hearing people), remote functions and telecare. Particular focus of the project has been concentrated on the telecare which is performed in co-operation with a university hospital.

At the IRV in Hoensbroek an experimental facility was developed starting with the adaptation of an already existing home. The purpose of the project was to evaluate new equipment and to provide a basis for consultancy in the area of smart housing. The basic infrastructure present in this house contains the usual modifications to make it accessible (kitchen, bedroom, toilet, doors etc.). The home is equipped with a home bus system for control of functions. The control of these functions is integrated and can be placed on a wheelchair using the M3S approach. It is the philosophy in this experimental test house that special functions for disabled persons have to be installed on top of the basic infrastructure. Further development of the house is moving in the direction of the application of technology readily available in the laboratories, integration of (tele)work facilities, and other new technical developments.

The Living Environment Europe Programme started by General Electric Plastics at Bergen op Zoom tries to combine system integration with the application of artificial materials. Home management functions covered are intended for general purposes such as security, maintenance, energy, etc. The use of artificial materials means that an effort is made to come to affordable production with good functionality.

In each of the projects mentioned above, only one house was involved. Several feasibility projects are under consideration directed to groups of houses (either stand alone or integrated in one building) aimed at the elderly. Most of these projects are directed to home management functions in general such as security, energy, comfort. Some projects try to combine home-management functions with external services.

The Finnish Perspective

In Finland, the concept of an adaptable smarter home is used. This is a home that is built or renovated in such a way that it is easy and cheap to adapt the home to the changing needs of the inhabitants. For disabled and elderly people, for example, this means that devices assisting the activities of daily living can be easily installed at a later stage.

In a broader sense, the adaptable smarter home should also benefit from a physical as well as social environment that supports the inhabitants.

It would thus include:

- the physical environment (buildings, community infrastructure);
- the social environment (social services, neighbours, relatives);
- the far environment (political, cultural, economic and ecological).

An example that could be mentioned is the first group of 12 adaptable smarter homes constructed in Finland as part of a European project (TIDE-ASHORED, 1993).

The homes were built to comply with the disability requirements as well as the adaptability requirements. The devices were chosen, based on the real needs of the actual inhabitants. Note also the connections between the adaptable smarter homes and the service centres in addition to the carers, as shown in Figure 4-25.

The environmental control system can be based on a separate telecommunications bus (optical fibre, coax, twisted pair, radio frequency, power line or IR bus). The system normally includes the network, central unit and IR remote control console, which allows for the control and monitoring of:

- door locks and door motors;
- windows, lights;
- television, radio and telephone;
- security (fire, burglary, water etc.).

The communication can be supported by a PC. The client can use different auxiliary input devices for this purpose, including control by whistling, voice etc.

An example of new devices is the local videotelephone system by which the inhabitant could discuss and see the person in the service centre or the person at the front door (Figure 4-25).

Infrared locks are used, and paging systems for calling service personnel include an intercom with conferencing facilities, by which potential helpers can communicate internally with the caller in an alarm situation.

The elderly or disabled inhabitants in adaptable smarter homes need services such as alarm services, home care, home health care, and teleshopping in order to cope with the activities of daily living. An alarm telephone system consists of service centre equipment including telephone, PC, display, printer for communication logging and a data base with information about the clients. The communication to the service centre, automatically activates many other systems when the client initiates the alarm by pressing the appropriate button on the telephone or by pressing the wrist worn alarm button. Information about the calling client is automatically shown on the display when the alarm is received at the service centre. The alarm can also be activated in a passive way by the network.

(Figure 4-25) Adaptable smarter home and the service environment.

The Finnish suburban area Joensuu/Marjala with some 1250 homes, offices, shops etc., as well as recreation areas is being built, with the first 250 homes due to be ready for the national building fair 1995 and the remaining homes due to be ready before the end of 1996. Each home will be adaptable to the different needs of the inhabitants, including the needs of young people with a family of children, and the needs of elderly or disabled inhabitants. When life situations changes the home should be adaptable to the new situation, taking into account future needs, technologies and networks, already in the planning so that solutions can easily be introduced when needed.

As a result Marjala will have homes and public areas built in such a way that every place is accessible to wheelchairs, without making this feature too obvious. For example, the elevators will also serve the attics as well as the cellar planes. No unnecessary steps, curbs or level differences inside the buildings or in the environments will prevent moving around with a wheelchair. Marjala will be the first large area in Europe which has been built to be a BARRIER FREE SUBURB where the requirements of disabled and elderly people are taken into account in every home and in the whole area.

No special home for disabled people will be built in the suburb, because every home will be built in such a way that disabled people can live there.

The service infrastructure will allow the inhabitants to live, move around, and work as independently as they wish. The flexible work and telework concept implemented in the area will support everyone and especially people who have difficulties in reaching their working site. These services are based on the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) which forms the base for the telecommunications infrastructure. Public services, using the ISDN based telecommunications network, such as information services or teleshopping have been designed in such a way that they should be accessible to all. All the homes will have kitchens and sanitary facilities built in such a way that they are accessible to a person in a wheelchair.

The homes are equipped with more powerful electrical and telecommunications networks than the actual regulations require. The cables, cable ducts and the way they have been installed make future rearrangements of inner walls, doors etc. possible.

Some other examples of the services that are imple-mented, are the provision of home care, job-searching, housing support health care and so on.

The inhabitants can use the normal shops or the teleshopping service. Reservation of time for a general practitioner, or reservation of day-service for children, or others needing day-care can be performed by using the telecommunications network services.

Home office or Satellite offices concepts will also be implemented in the area.


The concept of a Smart House is both exciting and extremely challenging. Much like the introduction of television, you may love it or hate it; but either way it is here to stay. With proper co-ordination between technical developers and representatives of the users of the systems, there is no reason why great benefits for all, should not result.

In many areas the further development of the Smart House as a tool to help people with disabilities, is currently inhibited by lack of clear standards, and in turn, availability of technology. The situation is set to change, however, with the introduction of emerging technologies such as DECT (Digital European Cordless Telecommunications), GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications), imbedded software platforms and home bus interfaces.

The needs of people with disabilities will not, in themselves, greatly affect the design of new technologies - much as many would like to think they will. The most positive scenario is to see special needs included and considered within the needs of the public at large. Demographic studies show us that the potential market of both disabled and elderly people is set to increase dramatically. At the same time many products can achieve a greater chance of success if their market appeal can be widened as much as possible, allowing for economies of scale and greater public acceptance.


TIDE-MECCS, (1993). Project No 205, public final report, Brussels.

TIDE-ASHORED, (1993). Project No 101, public final report, Brussels.