Toronto (Dec. 5, 2010) - Homes that know when you have fallen. Kitchens that assess your nutritional intake and flooring that monitors your vital signs. And even a voice that politely reminds you where you’ve put your car keys.

It’s all part of the “intelligent home environment” being developed by Toronto Rehab scientist Dr. Alex Mihailidis, whose pioneering work has earned him the new Barbara G. Stymiest Chair in Rehabilitation Technology Research at Toronto Rehab.

Dr. Mihailidis’ vision for an intelligent home―considered far-fetched by many just a decade ago―was inspired by a colleague whose wife had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Today, Dr. Mihailidis is recognized internationally for his use of artificial intelligence, computer visioning and voice-recognition technology to support older people and those with disabilities in their daily living.

“We are closer than ever to realizing our vision of an intelligent home that uses these capabilities to help people age in place, giving them independence and reducing demands on caregivers and the health care system,” says Dr. Mihailidis, a biomedical engineer and an associate professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of Toronto.

“Imagine if every brick or other building materials, such as flooring or wallboard, could include the computer and networking capabilities needed for an intelligent environment,” he says. “The idea is that no matter what you are doing, the home recognizes your intent. No matter what your abilities and preferences, it provides a system to meet your needs―whether it’s coaching you through tasks or reminding you where you left your keys. These systems could apply to anyone – without or without a disability.”

Already, Dr. Mihailidis’ team has developed a home-based fall-detection device that knows when a person has fallen and can call for help. The system includes ceiling-mounted cameras and uses artificial intelligence to ‘learn’ and track the actions and patterns of the user. If it senses the user has fallen or stopped moving, it can ask questions, recognize different responses and, if necessary, alert relatives or dial an emergency number.

There’s also a sophisticated system that uses artificial intelligence to “prompt” people with dementia through the task of hand washing and other daily activities. Like the fall detection system, it has a camera that sends images to a computer. The computer then compares the person’s motions to a set of recorded algorithms and reminds them if they’ve forgotten a step.

Now, the team is working on a new feature that will monitor what a person is eating and drinking―and how often. Eating habits can deteriorate in older people and those who have memory problems – with potentially serious consequences, such as dehydration and malnutrition.

In the future, the system will be able to monitor other activities—such as medication use—detect changes in a person’s health, and provide warning messages before things deteriorate. The technology will also be used for other daily activities such as dressing and cooking.

“Because an intelligent home learns and adapts to the habits of its occupants, it can interact with a person if his or her behaviour does not fit with typical patterns and, if necessary, alert caregivers,” Dr. Mihailidis explains.

The Toronto-born scientist will use his research chair to move from standalone systems that need to be installed in a home to a “fully integrated intelligent home environment”. Futuristic though it might seem, Dr. Mihailidis talks about incorporating the different capabilities into the building materials themselves, a concept he calls “brick computing.”

Dr. Geoff Fernie, Toronto Rehab’s Vice President, Research, says the new appointment is “recognition of Alex and the fact that we really believe his field of research has an important future here. We’re an applied institution, which means we believe that within a reasonable timeframe, this work will have important implications for the people we serve.”

The Barbara G. Stymiest Chair in Rehabilitation Technology Research was made possible by donors to Everything Humanly Possible: The Campaign for Toronto Rehab in honour of the Campaign Chair – Barbara Stymiest, Group Head, Strategy, Treasury & Corporate Services at RBC.

Dr. Mihailidis was recently named president-elect of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.

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