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Standards for Smart Housing for People with Disabilities

John Gill


A smart home implies some form of local network for interconnecting various devices or services in the home.  For people with disabilities, the appropriate use of smart systems could enable more people to live independently for longer.  It may be relatively simple systems which will meet an individual’s needs.  For instance it could be a reminder to take medication, possibly coupled with a system to prevent the patient from accidentally taking the medication twice.  Another possibility is that when the key is turned in the outside of the front door, there is an audible warning that the cooker has been left on or a downstairs window left open.  More sophisticated systems might automatically call a service centre or carer in the event of a fault in a domestic appliance.

For people who need a greater level of care, smart housing offers the possibility of remote healthcare.  For people with dementia, it is technically possible for a carer to monitor the person’s location.  However there are a range of ethical and legal issues with monitoring systems.

Smart home technology will usually require sensors, actuators, controllers, a network and the all important user interface.  Standardisation is crucial to ensure that all the components will work with each other in hopefully a seamless fashion.  Since standardisation is an expensive process it is important to determine priorities for what should be standardised.

The standardisation process involves:

Unfortunately standardisation is a time consuming process which has low academic content and is often undertaken by skilled people who are not paid for this activity.  In this field, there is often little direct commercial benefit.  The result is that it is often difficult to find the appropriate people with the time to undertake this important work.

The lack of standards, or multiple incompatible standards, is particularly noticeable in the area of user interfaces.  Even relatively simple aspects like the layout of numerical keypads has problems in that there is one standard for telephone keypads and another for calculator keypads; some smart housing systems use one format and others use a different layout.  When it comes to icons, symbols and pictograms there is even greater variation, which often leaves users very confused.

The choice of typeface can also make a significant difference as to whether the user interface is usable by someone with impaired vision.  For instance the Arial typeface is problematic in that the capital I and the lower case l are almost identical; also the numerals 6, 8 and 9 can be easily confused.  It costs little to use an appropriate typeface but it can make all the difference for many potential users.

In some circumstances the user interface can be automatically configured to suit an individual.  For instance the user’s preferred interface can be stored in the system or on some form of smart media; these preferences may be for large characters on a screen, speech output or more time to complete an operation.  There is a European standard (EN 1332-4) for the coding of these user requirements.

Up to recently the most common form of networks for smart housing were based on cables (sometimes dedicated cables and sometimes using the mains electric cabling).  However wireless systems are likely to dominate in the foreseeable future.  Bluetooth was developed primarily for use on mobile phones, and is too slow in establishing a network connection for many smart housing applications.  Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b/g) was developed for local and metropolitan area networks, and again is not ideal for smart housing applications.  ZigBee is specifically developed for this application but is not yet generally available.  However UWB (ultra-wide broadband) spreads low powered signals over a very wide spectrum, and has been predicted to become the dominant wireless system within a few years.  Therefore the problem is not a lack of standards but too many competing standards all designed for slightly different purposes.  However few of these standards have been developed with any protocols for interfacing to assistive devices.

For connecting to services outside the home, broadband with internet protocol is the dominant system.  However wireless systems from SMS (short message service) to GPRS (global packet radio service) to 3G (third generation mobile communications) are already being used, and have the advantage that they do not require a fixed connection point.

Consideration has to be given to aspects such as power failure.  For instance in such circumstances should the electric lock on the outside door be ‘open’ or ‘closed’; for fire safety it should be ‘open’, but for security it should be ‘closed’.  An uninterruptable power supply is often not commercially viable for a domestic installation.

The smart house must be easy to configure to meet both the needs of the end user as well as any carer or support staff; the needs of these people may differ so it is important that the system can cope with their various requirements.  Also needs may change over time, so it is important that it is simple to reconfigure the system without having to call in specialist staff.

Smart housing offers exciting possibilities for helping people with disabilities, but there are a number of aspects, including standardisation, which need to be resolved before there is likely to be widespread implementation.




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