There’s no doubt that the pace of technological innovation is at full pelt. But it’s not just whizz-bang ideas for kids. A huge wave of really useful technologies is fetching up on these shores to make life easier, cheaper, comfier and more secure for us all.
Already we can link home appliances, from fridges and TVs to heating controls, to our phones or computers to control them. Now there is ‘sensor’ technology, which can track an individual’s physical movements around the home – or outside it, if needed – and relay them to loved ones via their phones or computers.
Couple all this to advances in robotics and we are finally living in an age where so-called ‘assistive technology’ can prolong independence and ease of living far beyond the levels of previous generations. This joining up of a network of sensors embedded in physical objects to the web – and finally to the user – is called the Internet of Things, to use the latest buzz phrase.
Here we take a look at just a few of the great innovations that are either available right now, or likely to be in the UK this year. These gadgets can provide assistance on all kinds of levels, from around the house to keeping you in the very best of health.
Action man: robots
The kind of robotic companion seen in the 2012 film Robot & Frank or the Sixties' Lost In Space TV series is still a long way off. But there are a few on the market to make day-to-day living that little bit brighter.
Aldebaran’s NAO robot is bristling with technology – cameras, microphones, sonar, infrared receivers and touch sensors. NAO can walk, talk, sing and dance. What’s more, it can learn and recognise faces. Not only does NAO know when you are speaking to it, but thanks to speech-recognition software from Nuance (the company behind Apple’s voice-helper, Siri), it can also engage in alarmingly natural conversation, even gauging mood. It’s not just a toy though. This little chap standing 57cm (just under 2ft) tall, can be connected to the web, so remote monitoring of a loved one’s activity levels is possible. £12,255 (active-robots.com)
Seal of approval: robotic pets
A fluffier robotic companion is PARO based on a baby harp seal, to be stroked and played with like a pet, making owners feel calmer and happier. Dubbed the ‘World’s Most Therapeutic Robot’, its sensors mean it can perceive people and its environment and recognise the direction of voices. The ‘healing pet’ shows emotions such as surprise, happiness and anger, all while imitating the ‘voice’ of a baby seal.
Why, one might ask? Well, it can give dementia sufferers some of the many benefits of a real pet. Around £3,000 (parorobots.com)
Hot idea: Hive
Why have the boiler going full blast if you’ve been delayed by a few hours? Enter Hive, set up by British Gas, enabling you to control your home heating from your smartphone. It even looks after your pipes: there’s a nifty frost-protection feature that automatically switches the heating on when the temperature drops below 5C/41F.
Watch out, too, for when the similarly ‘connected’ Nest thermostat hits our shores. £199 (hivehome.com, 0800 980 0649)
Watching over you: remote monitoring
Just Checking is a service for anyone wanting to remain in their own home, but with the comfort of knowing that a loved one can tell that all is well. Small movement sensors are placed around the house that let your nominated ‘remote carer’ know whether you have, for instance, got up in the morning, made a meal or even left the back door open.
The data can be seen at any time on an online activity chart on the carer’s phone or computer. If you leave the house, the system also logs how long you’ve been gone, and can send alerts by text. All this means you won’t keep being bothered by people checking up on you if you don’t want them to – and there are no prying cameras or microphones. It’s a great idea to calm down a worried – but distant – son or daughter. Very large dogs might trip the sensors, however. £90 per month (justchecking.co.uk, 01564 785100)
Lively is an alternative system, heading here from the US and created by an ex-Apple designer. It plans to take monitoring to the next level by tracking things such as cupboard opening and toothbrush usage. (mylively.com)
Easy PC: making computers easier to use
Monitoring devices need to link to a smart device such as a phone or a tablet. But not all tablets are as easy to use as we are led to believe. Cue the Breezie, a modified Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 with a super-friendly user interface. Simple icons leading to obvious sections.
For instance, you get the option to video call someone without having to know what on earth Skype is or how to use it. You have to subscribe to the ongoing service, but the first year is free. £329 for a 10in screen, £279 for 8in (breezie.com, 0800 917 7588)
Sleep smarter: the alarm clock with a difference
Withings’ sleep monitor aims to help you to get an exceptional night’s sleep. The soft, flat Aura sensor goes under your mattress and reads your body’s movements, breathing patterns, heart rate, room temperature and noise levels. All the data is uploaded to a smartphone so you can study your habits. The Aura comes with a companion light that works with the sensor to determine the smoothest wake cycle to rouse you naturally using light. No more harsh alarms going off when you are in deep slumber. Available late spring. £249.95 (withings.com)
Smarter phones for older people
Japan has a very demanding older population: well-off, well cared-for and respected. And finding a smartphone they liked has been a problem.
‘The Japanese are nothing if not image conscious,’ says Tokyo-based tech analyst Terrie Lloyd.
Japan’s largest telephone company NTT Docomo, in partnership with Fujitsu, asked design genius Kenetsu Furuki to create the Raku-Raku phone, which has been a big hit with older people in Japan, many of whom resisted iPhones and other complex smartphones. More than 23% of people over 65 in Japan now have one – that’s up from 10% last year.
The designer had to navigate a fine line between creating a useful phone for an older person (fewer buttons, larger icons) and not insulting the owners with over-simplicity.
The result is a smartphone with radically altered software, the next generation of Japan’s Raku-Raku (easy-easy) phones – originally just simplified mobiles, of which 20 million have been sold since 2001.
Features include a voice-activated address book and a built-in pedometer – part of the keep-fit apps the phone offers in abundance. Another feature is a free-to-use, phone-based ‘community’ where users can easily interact with other Raku-Raku phone owners – people they would normally never meet – to discuss hobbies, travel, food and health, for instance.
Instead of a conventional touch-screen, virtual ‘buttons’ on the screen light up or click positively, mimicking the analogue experience of knowing a button has been pressed.
Another great idea slows down the speech of an incoming call, making calls clearer. There are also clever safety features, such as the button on the phone that sends a text message with the GPS coordinates of the phone’s owner to family or friends in an emergency.
The phone has proved so successful that it was launched in France last summer. If it’s a hit there, the UK could well be next.
Scout’s promise: health checks
Lauded as the machine that brings Star Trek’s medical ‘tricorder’ (remember Bones?) closer to reality, the Scanadu Scout is a cool-looking device shaped like a hockey puck. Place it on your forehead for ten seconds and it measures vitals: heart rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygen levels, as well as temperature. Information collected is sent to a smartphone.
The Scout is awaiting results of trials before seeking US Food and Drug Administration approval, after which it will be launched. They also have an at-home urine-testing device. Around £120 (scanadu.com)
...and finally! The smart bra
Saucy Japanese lingerie brand Ravijour has unveiled a ‘smart bra’ that they claim will pop undone only if a woman is truly in love.
A sensor built in to the bra detects the wearer’s heart rate and sends it to a special smartphone app for analysis. The app then calculates the ‘True Love Rate’ based on changes over the normal heart rate. When this rate exceeds a certain value – hey-presto! – the hook opens.
Just watch out if you’re running for a bus…
Join the conversation
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This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition of Saga or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month.