The Evolution of Smart Home Technology for People With Disabilities


Advances in technology over the last four decades have come a long way. Today, smart home devices are more affordable and offer seamless integration between various compatible products. Also, the paradigm shift away from facility care as the most likely alternative for housing to aging in place in the home has heightened the demand for a wide range of in-home technology to keep individuals connected, healthy and safe. With everything from Internet-connected light bulbs to cameras that let us spy on our pets from the office already available, experts say that a decade from now we’ll move from controlling lights with our voices to total immersion in the Internet of Things (IoT).

What is IoT?

IoT, including smart home technology, has advanced for people with physical and cognitive impairments, with utility for fall prevention and for wheelchair users of all ages. But what exactly is IoT? IoT provides clients with independence and autonomy by integrating electronic aids to daily living (EADL) and a wide variety of smart devices and appliances through hardware and smartphone apps such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa Smart Home products. The benefits of IoT include access to health care, transportation and home safety through tracking and wearable devices.

The Evolution

The beginning of modern-day smart home technology can be traced back to 1975, when the release of X-10 home automation platforms using radio frequency was popular for remotely controlling devices. Imperium and Multimedia Max were two early X-10 environmental control units used in homes for persons with disabilities. With Max, different rooms typically had different interfaces with labels representing the voice commands necessary to control the labeled device. Imperium used visual and audio scanning through optional displays to control electrical devices.

Fast forward to 2005, when the Z-Wave platform was introduced as a radio frequency technology that did not interfere with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other wireless technologies. Non-Z-Wave products can be networked by plugging them into Z-Wave accessory modules.

Nest Labs, which was founded by Apple engineers in 2010, released a line of smart home products compatible with smartphones. Once Google purchased Nest Labs in 2014, the technology race began. Apple released its Apple HomeKit app (also known as the Home App with Siri), which is pre-installed on iPhones or iPads and has a full line of compatible products. In 2014, Amazon released its first Echo (with Alexa), realized its potential in the smart home market and released further products. Google also released its own voice-activated virtual assistant, “Hey Google,” and claims more than 5,000 Google Home compatible smart home devices. Samsung also entered the smart market and now offers the SmartThings app, which allows connection with appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, and clothes washers and dryers.

Today’s Uses

EADLs include various devices that help individuals with physical, visual, hearing and cognitive impairments perform daily routine tasks safely within their environments and communities. EADLs include emergency devices like fall detectors, movement sensors and hearing aids. Smart home devices may control appliances, televisions, interior and exterior doors, power window blinds, garage door openers and durable medical equipment such as electric hospital beds. For example, Oradell offers the Alexa Bedtell to allow voice control of an electric hospital bed by linking Alexa devices to Invacare’s G Series Bed.

Smart home devices may be touch, touchless (motion sensor switch activation) or voice activated, and integrate with multiple devices and hardware, such as smart displays (Alexa Echo Show and Google Nest), smartphones, watches, outlets, light bulbs and speakers.

In a situation where a person uses a power wheelchair with an alternative drive control and cannot touch a button or use their voice to activate an automatic door opener, a sensor switch can be placed on the power wheelchair to automatically open the door when the power wheelchair approaches the door at a certain programmed distance. The sensor detection area is typically up to three programmable distance settings (3 feet, 6 feet and 9 feet, for example). The sensor will activate the door when a smart tag is within the detection area, with no use of the hand required. Open Sesame offers this feature and is compatible with Alexa. Autoslide also provides a sensor pendant that integrates with Autoslide automatic door openers and Open Sesame.

Smart home technologies have helped individuals with sensory impairments keep up with news, listen to and watch TV, do grocery shopping, maintain a calendar and perform other tasks in their homes and communities, reports The Braille Institute, which provides resources to people with vision and hearing impairments. For example, the Alexa Echo Show can keep a list of grocery items, place home delivery orders and set daily routines and reminders. Alexa speakers, such as the Echo Dots, can be placed in various areas of the home and communicate with each other through a hub (gateway). A person can say. “Alexa, turn on the lights in the kitchen” from other rooms in the home.

The Future of Smart Home Devices

Smart home technology is constantly evolving, and the world of interconnected smart home devices is only the tip of the iceberg. Various industries have integrated artificial intelligence (AI) into their operations, which will likely become increasingly prevalent in the smart home world. AI has begun to play a significant role in the evolution of smart home technology, like AI-powered smart home devices that can interact and communicate with each other, allowing them to learn human habits through data collection. For example, an AI-powered refrigerator that monitors available food ingredients can help individuals decide what to cook based on dietary restrictions and favorite recipes. Or an AI-powered oven with computer vision can control the cooking process and monitor when food is cooked to the appropriate temperatures.

In summary, because smart homes and AI continue to emerge, individuals with disabilities will continue to reap their benefits and improve their quality of life and safety in their homes and communities. Smart homes will become even smarter using IoT sensors, machine learning and AI-powered devices. It will certainly be interesting to see how these technologies develop in the coming years.


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