It’s hard to stand out amidst hundreds of well-established global companies offering innovative medical devices and new solutions for patient monitoring at the annual HIMSS conference.  Shimmer Research, an Irish company looking to bring its wearable wireless sensor platform to the U.S. healthcare market took on the challenge in hopes of meeting new OEM partners and finding new opportunities for product development at the event. Kieran Daly, Vice President of Business Development at Shimmer Research, was busy spreading the word about Shimmer technology and trying to cement new partnerships.  Daly noted that participation in HIMSS was only one facet of the campaign to expand Shimmer, which currently has a 12 person team and a Boston office, “The U.S. is currently our largest market, and we have big plans to grow there over the next 12 to 18 months on the industrial and research side.”

The company is already working with a number of research partners who use the open source Shimmer platform and configure it to collect and measure the data specific to a particular medical monitoring.  One of the attractions for research applications is that Shimmer comes configured with an open source library of firmware to accelerate development of specific types of monitoring projects and pilot deployments.  The researchers just have to develop their own data aggregation and analysis software and algorithms to interpret the raw data that is collected.  To scale beyond small pilots, Daly is hoping to land more OEM partnerships that will leverage the Shimmer platform and sensors in more extensive product rollouts.  In addition, Shimmer is working on some of its own branded applications, with plans to bring these to market in the coming year.

The technology underpinning Shimmer includes a configurable wireless sensor platform that is lightweight enough to be worn without hampering normal activity.  In addition to Bluetooth and Zigbee connectivity for wireless data communication, the platform provides data capture and processing and basic motion sensing capabilities.  Its architecture connects to sensor and health monitoring modules and can be adapted to a wide range of health and medical monitoring applications. 

According to Daly, academic and medical researchers are using the Shimmer platform to design and test pilot projects ranging from monitoring of tremors in Parkinson’s patients to predicting (and helping to avoid) falls by detecting subtle gait and balance problems.   Commercial applications include a program by Insight Diagnostics to diagnosis soft tissue injuries, and to help employers determine if such injuries are the result of a recent workplace injury or due to chronic, pre-existing conditions and tracking physical therapy compliance and recuperation progress after knee replacement surgery.

Shimmer is a division of Realtime Technologies, an Irish provider of electronic manufacturing and design services.  Realtime licensed the technology behind Shimmer from Intel in 2008.

Since launching its healthcare business division in 2009 and demonstrating a prototype of its robotic home health assistant at TEDMED the same year, iRobot has been relatively quiet about its plans for commercialization of robot-assisted healthcare. But it has been active behind the scenes in patenting key aspects of its plans; as noted in our last article, iRobot received a patent in May 2010 on the invention of a very capable Companion Robot for Personal Interaction.

We have already discussed how the iRobot patent describes methods of the Companion Robot interacting and communicating with human healthcare recipients to create a trusted relationship. Even more interesting, is how the iRobot patent positions its Companion Robot to take over the hotly contested role of integrated communications platform for multiple smart devices in a connected home. While most analysts are looking to smart energy, home automation or smartphone vendors to take the lead in integrating the proliferation of wireless devices in the typical home, some authors have predicted that connected home health providers will play an important role. In her recently published book Smart Products, Smarter Services, Mary Cronin (NewsAlert) devotes an entire chapter to the smart home. Her conclusion is as follows:

“Most of the elements of a connected smart home are available as separate smart products and networking components. But the three industry sectors that would benefit most from creating an integrated smart ecosystem for home networking, the entertainment, health, and energy sectors, are competing with each other and contending with unresolved business challenges.”

At first it might not seem that a robot healthcare companion would be a leading candidate to become a trusted smart home integration platform, but this is quite clearly what iRobot has in mind.

The patent introduces the topic of smart home integration by noting that provisions are made for plugging a wide range of health assisting appliances into the Companion Robot. In addition to providing power, network access, security and mobility services to these devices, the robot gives these devices a common, compelling and trusted – dare we say it – human interface.

Besides supporting other home health devices, the iRobot patent describes how the Companion Robot can recognize other home devices such as televisions, DVD players, lighting, fans, cable boxes and air conditioners, retrieve their command codes from a central database and allow the resident to control these devices through the robot, using the same UI that has become familiar through repeated health-related interactions with the robot.

Moving beyond simply controlling non-health home devices, the patent envisions scenarios in which the robot provides assistance in paying bills, reducing clutter, interacting with contractors and door-to-door salesmen, conducting housing safety inspections, and accompanying the resident on shopping trips. The robot prepares for this level of assistance by keeping track of in-home activities and resident behavior patterns. It tracks prior shopping selections and in-house food inventories through scanning bar codes and storing information about expiration dates and the human resident’s normal eating patterns. Like a smart shopper, the robot knows when the milk in the refrigerator is past its use-by date and needs to be replaced—and with the appropriate trusted connections, it can add such items to the shopping list.

It might seem like a step too far for a Robot Companion that is still in development to take on the critical role of an integration platform for the connected home. But none of the other contenders, from Cisco to Microsoft to more recent home integrations entrants such as Apple (News Alert) and Google have managed to create a compelling integration offer. Why not a trusted healthcare robot?

iRobot was founded in 1990 and is now a $300 million publically traded company. The company started modestly with home cleaning robots such as the Roomba and the Scooba and through first-hand market experience with these products accumulated a deep understanding of home robotics. The iRobot Companion Robot for Personal Interaction is based on a broad vision for smart home integration. It remains to be seen whether that visionary patent will eventually be backed up with marketable products and an ability to execute.

According to U.S. Census data, almost 40 million U.S. residents are over 65, a senior population that is expected to more than double by 2050 with particularly rapid growth in the number of people over the age of 80. Determined to be active and independent as long as possible, today’s baby boomers are exploring connected health solutions that provide support for staying in their own homes, or “aging in place.” As a result, the market for home health devices is crowded with services that will remind seniors to take their prescription medicine, monitor their vital signs, and send out medical alerts in the case of emergency situations like falls and accidents.  With so many separate health monitoring systems to choose from, many families are searching for an easy-to-manage, customizable solution that can be expanded to suit the sometimes volatile health monitoring requirements of aging parents.

AtGuardianAngel, a Texas firm focused on the Aging in Place market, designed its My Guardian fall detection service to evolve with the changing needs of seniors and their families. According to Ed Caracappa, founder and CEO, the core fall detection technology is embedded in a lightweight wristwatch that seniors can wear round the clock.  The My Guardian watch includes integrated accelerometers and a location-sensitive WiFi  connection that activates automatically to alert designated respondents and family members when it detects a fall.  It uses FDA Cleared technology developed by AFrame Digital Inc. The watch also has an emergency alert button that the wearer can push to summon help whenever needed. The basic system costs around $1,000 and comes with all required components for fall detection. The monthly subscription and service cost is $79.95.
This basic connected health service may be enough to reassure the families of healthy, independent seniors that help will always be available in the case of an unexpected fall.   Since the MyGuardian watch tracks time of day and continually communicates with the small WiFi routers that are plugged into electrical outlets throughout the home, the system can also discreetly monitor in-home activity and behavior patterns over time and alert family members to a lack of activity or troubling changes in behavior. This information can prompt early diagnosis of health problems or flag memory and behavior issues before an accident occurs.   

Caracappa knows from his own family experience that aging parents living alone are often reluctant to tell their children about minor falls and incidents around the home.  He realized that his father had gait and balance problems only after a major fall sent his father to the hospital.  Alerting caregivers about even minor incidents will allow them to help seniors to avoid more serious accidents.  

AtGuardianAngel works closely with families to customize each installation to fit the needs of the client, from early warning of balance or behavioral changes to integrating the system with a variety of medical monitoring devices. Clients determine the type of alerts to receive (either SMS or e-mail) and can provide a priority order of notification for up to six people based on different types of alerts.   So a next door neighbor or close-by family member may be on the list to receive an alert of a fall, while another family member will be notified if the senior has not recorded taking their morning medicine.  The company also takes on consultative and support role as long as the system is active – from training family members about what types of behavior patterns may indicate health problems to adding more WiFi outlets to expand the location tracking capacity of the system.  

As medical needs change, Caracappa wants to be a long-term resource to clients, “Customer support for configuration changes is available throughout the service contract – for example if families want to monitor more areas of the home, or integrate other medical devices.  Unfortunately, many people don’t think about the care of their aging loved ones until something bad, like a fall with an injury, has already occurred.  We work closely with each family to understand their concerns for present and to help them plan for the future.  Our passion is healthy aging in place, and we are constantly looking to expand our services to make that vision possible for all seniors.”

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