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Festival of science Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Low-tech homes to care for the old
By BBC News Online's Jonathan Amos

The elderly could soon be living in homes packed with technology that monitors their every move and stimulates their day.

Not only would the Millennium Homes, as they are being called, watch over the health of their inhabitants, they would also enliven people's moods with perfumes and sounds - they might even talk.

Professor Heinz Wolff
Professor Wolff hopes prototype homes will be in operation soon
The idea comes from popular science pundit Professor Heinz Wolff.

He has public funding of 1.2m and private backing to develop the technology which he believes will help society cope with the demographic changes that are leading to an increasingly aged population.

Medical miracles

Professor Wolff, who is based at Brunel University, told the British Association's Festival of Science that much modern research had become lopsided - perusing "miracle" medical procedures that society could not possibly afford for all its citizens.

On the other hand, he said, there was little interest in developing simple treatments for incontinence, for example, even though three million people in the UK would be over the age of 80 by 2010.

"When the history of the later part of the 21st Century is written, we could find that in spite of all the fantastic technological and medical advances the actual impact we have had on the real ills of society has been relatively trivial."

He said society was heading into crisis and it had to find way of dealing with its problems in an affordable way that utilised current technology.

Simple technology

The Millennium Homes will be jammed full of sensors, linked by radio to a base station, that will report the welfare of their inhabitants to designated local helpers who are also overseen by a central call centre.

Professor Wolff said all the technology necessary had already been invented - it was just a case of putting it altogether into a useable package.

"It is surprising what information you can get from even the simplest sensors, like those used in burglar alarms - whether a door has been opened or shut, whether the sofa has been sat on. Given the right software, they can build up a very good picture of what people are doing."

Professor Wolff said the systems could be interactive. They could talk to their inhabitants or play them music. The release of coffee or toast smells might suggest it was time for breakfast, he said.

But the houses would also alert volunteers to call in if patterns of behaviour suggested something was wrong.

Old values

The first Millennium Homes are likely to be tested in the Greenwich area of south London, and at Brunel University itself. Professor Wolff said local authorities across the UK were showing considerable interest in the project.

He expected the capital cost of each system to be about 3,000 but he envisaged private individuals renting the necessary equipment to install in their own homes at no more than 50 per week.

He said his low-tech approach would be cheaper than building and running sheltered accommodation. Professor Wolff said it would also help society recover some of the old values of community which saw people look out for their neighbours.

The local volunteers would probably be the recently retired, he said. "They would be trained how to give care, but it would also train them how to receive it when they were in their 80s," he said.

Professor Heinz Wolff
"Society will not be able to afford the new miracle cures"
See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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