Telecare has been a buzz-word in the field of care for older people and disabled people for years, but too often separate technologies are disjointed or users struggle to manage them.
The team behind a pioneering research project to be showcased at Glasgow University today claim it can rectify that, improving the lives of carers and helping older and disabled people live more independent lives.
The MultiMemoHome project, a collaboration between researchers at the university's School of Computing Science and the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics, has used technologies to harness sound, vision, smell and touch, creating interactive systems which they say can be easily understood and navigated by people with cognitive or sensory impairments.
Care staff at local councils and other social care providers are being given the chance to see a display of products created by the MultiMemoHome team.
They include vibrating wristbands or pendants which can be set to act as reminders for events users might otherwise forget.
One system uses a bowl – printed using a 3D printer – which can be rigged to operate in conjunction with equipment designed for console gaming on a Microsoft Xbox.
Users can place important objects such as keys, a bus pass or a mobile phone in the bowl, and when the Xbox Kinect sensor detects someone in the hallway preparing to enter or leave the house, the bowl glows to remind them to take the items with them.
The team's work has included experiments in which other senses are utilised, including familiar smells such as the aroma of baking as a reminder to eat, or musical reminders, and even touch reminders for people who have dual sensory impairments, such as deaf-blindness.
Other systems can respond to spoken commands even when the speaker has a speech impairment.
The systems were developed in co-design sessions with researchers to ensure that they were acceptable and usable by older people. Interfaces and apps for mobile phones and tablet PCs allow users to select when and how they receive a reminder.
Dr Marilyn McGee-Lennon, the University of Glasgow's lead researcher on the project, said: "In recent years many new pieces of hardware and software have come to market which aim to help people live independently.
"Although they frequently work very well on their own, they are often not so good at sharing information with each other to provide carers with a full picture of the everyday lives of the people they look after.
"We've taken significant steps to developing products which easily interact with each other and are fully customisable, so users can set them up to work in ways which they can easily understand and react to."
She said a fully-wired house could track someone through the day, reminding them about meals, medication and appointments and alerting them if someone is at the door or the phone is ringing.
Dr McGee-Lennon said the system might require a significant initial investment from care providers, but would improve the quality of life of people using the services and enable them to stay longer in their own homes. She added: "That will also reduce the financial and staffing burdens an ageing population is putting on care providers."
Last year a tablet-based MultiMemoHome system was trialled with a dozen older people from the west of Scotland.
One of the trial participants, Elspeth Harte, from Bothwell, said: "I was given a tablet and a digital pen to use for several weeks to keep track of my appointments. The pen let me write notes in my paper diary and they were automatically transferred to my tablet, which would give me reminders to make sure I remembered to keep my appointments. It was easy to use and it was a real, practical benefit to me."
The university recently won a bid to participate in the £37m Dallas programme (Delivering Assisted Lifestyles Living at Scale) which is backed by the Scottish Government and led by the National Institute for Health Research. The scheme aims to introduce 170,000 people across the UK to assisted living technology by 2015.
Dr McGee-Lennon added: "The Dallas project is set to play a major role in determining how older people can be best served by technology to help keep them independent.
"We're looking forward to seeing how those systems and others are adopted and helping to evaluate their effectiveness in improving participants' everyday lives."