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Revealing Technology

PlaceLab, a unique live-in research facility, may help scientists draft a clear picture of the relationship between humans, their personal space and technology.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is probably the only city in the U.S. that connotes ivy and argyle as easily as semiconductors. It is an old city that is always a step ahead and preeminent in the quest for science. Adding to the intellectual prowess of Cambridge is PlaceLab, a new research facility with special relevance for residential installers.

PlaceLab is a joint initiative between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and TIAX, and an apartment unlike any you will find in Harvard Square. It is a unique live-in research facility that studies human behavior and tests technology in the context of everyday living. With miles of wire hidden behind walls and hundreds of sensors installed in cabinets, doors and even water fountains, researchers hope to draft a clear picture of the relationship between humans, their personal space and home technologies. PlaceLab offers a new paradigm for studying human behavior in the home.

PlaceLab offers research opportunities that are not possible in conventional academia or a corporate demonstration home, stated Kent Larson, director of MITs Department of Architecture House_n Consortium, one of the collaborators. This project does not test products but we think that the data collected will reveal information that the industry can use to develop new technologies. Nothing quite like it exists today.

PlaceLab, which began in May 2004, is not a product comparison lab or demonstration home; its an agnostic project with objective goals. According to MIT, the mission of PlaceLab is threefold: to gain an understanding of the everyday activities and behaviors of real people in the home; to invent and evaluate new technologies that enhance quality of life; and to establish a new model of collaboration between academia and industry.

PlaceLabs unique collaborative roots reflect the broad goals of its partner members. TIAX, a research and development firm, designed the mechanical systems and owns the condominium that houses PlaceLab. MITs House_n research consortium designed the integrated architecture and sensor infrastructure. On-Q Home provided a wide variety of equipment and resources for the PlaceLab infrastructure.

On-Q Home got involved early in the game, stated Dave Hanchette, VP of marketing for On-Q Home. From the very beginning we knew this would be an important and fun project to sponsor, so we provided the wiring, resources and equipment for all the activities like monitoring, recording, communication, entertainment and comfort. We wanted PlaceLab to have a backbone from On-Q. And because we have a basis in the structured wiring business, and now offer other product lines like audio/visual systems and wireless networking, a project like this is a perfect fit for us and garners positive industry recognition.

PlaceLabs control groupthe occupantsare volunteers who agree to live in the condominium and have their activities monitored all day and night. To protect residents privacy, no real-time monitoring occurs. Additionally, volunteers may delete any data before researchers review it.

The facility is a sophisticated multi-dwelling unit in a residential neighborhood chosen for its proximity to MIT and TIAX, public transportation, stores, restaurants and nightlife. Most PlaceLabs advanced technology is blended into the background of the apartment, operating invisibly.

According to MIT, every attempt has been made to create a comfortable apartment where occupants can go about their everyday routines without confronting obtrusive technology. Preserving the normality of mundane actions such as picking up the telephone is critical to the accuracy of the data. We chose 10 days as a typical length of stay for the volunteers because weve found that it takes about three days for them to become acclimated, then they forget about the technology, Larson stated.

Sophisticated sensorslinked by miles of wire tucked into the wallsmonitor nearly every aspect of life in the home including body posture, motion, communication, room temperature and air quality. The infrastructure was designed to offer researchers maximum flexibility in creating studies to recognize behavior and communicate with occupants. Depending upon the particular study, researchers can activate or deactivate place-based audio, computer-controllable colored lighting, touch screen mobile computing devices and standard desktop computers.

Researchers plan to use the PlaceLab for a variety of studies on home healthcare, energy conservation, technologies that motivate behavior change. For example, the sensing infrastructure will be used to develop techniques that recognize patterns of sleep, eating and socializing. Not just anyone can conduct a study, however. The PlaceLab Advisory Board consisting of individuals from academia and industry meet regularly to guide operations and review submissions for PlaceLab studies.

Though there have been precedents for live-in research facilities, such as sleep labs, but PlaceLab is unique as it will be used to study activity consistently throughout the day.

In the near future, MIT and TIAX will hold another PlaceLab conference (the inaugural conference, Changing Homes, commenced in September). Conferences are one important vehicle for the dissemination of information and data.

People interested in PlaceLab arent allowed into the facility, but they can access video footage and still images of the interior, prototypes of components such as cabinets that contain sensors, as well as example data collected.

PlaceLab is important for two main reasons, Dave Hanchette added. First, its intent. The goal is to continue to bridge the gap between academia and industry. It is not out to prove a point, test a particular point or build enterprise.

It is treated like a project in academia. This is an example of academia saying we must observe and through observing we will see needs. Then we will communicate to the industry to help create solutions that address these needs. Then interested parties may look at the data and help grow deliverables to bring to the consumer base.

Second, the mind-power and intellectual power behind this is astounding. MIT researchers are engaged and studying daily lifestyles. This is the prime example of revolutionary researchnot only thinking outside of the box but thinking beyond cardboard, beyond any conventional scope.

Margot Douaihy is managing editor of Residential Systems in New York City.