Apple, Home Automation & Smart Aging by Stealth

The word on the street is that Apple is set to announce a major foray into home automation next week at its annual developers conference. As noted by other analysts, Apple's move into the home coincides with similar investments made by companies such as Intel, Cisco, Samsung, Microsoft, and, of course, Google. Regardless of which company ultimately presents the best value proposition to consumers, the resulting smart home of the future is likely to be the house you live in today, with a significant IQ boost thanks to a wide range of accessories and wireless devices that are all part of what is now widely known as the Internet of Things.

To aging and tech researchers like me, home automation is not new idea. For more than a decade, there has been widespread fascination with the promise of technologies that have the potential to provide older adults and their caregivers heightened control over everyday tasks, such as turning on and off the entertainment system and lights, or closing the garage door. What's new this time around is that in the very near term, Apple, along with its competitors, stands to bring new tech to old age at unprecedented speed, far faster than those of us who have labored so nobly to enable smart aging one device or house at a time.

For many years, researchers in university and industry labs have been attempting to develop a smart house to support aging-in-place and caregiving, believing—and some still believe this—that devices for older adults have to be designed specifically for them. Unfortunately, while there have been numerous inventions pointing towards this vision, and even some promising startups, few of these products have made it to the retail shelf, let alone to the living rooms of older adults around the world. But what Apple et al. are hinting at is more inclusive: the smart-home-for-everyone-including-older-adults. Counterintuitively, making home automation mainstream and cool means that it's likely to end up in the hands of older adults sooner than if home automation technologies were only designed specifically for older people. A much-used, but evergreen, saw from the auto industry holds that "you cannot build an old man's car, because a young man won't buy it—and neither will an old man." But if you build a "young man's car" that also happens to solve the issues that older adults face—that's a goldmine. And so is a smart home that provides for everyone—but which sneaks in solutions for older adults. Picture this: a single-purpose system that monitors whether mom is eating. Now compare it with a system that monitors the contents of the refrigerator, enabling convenient home delivery for a young dual income couple, and which also happens to support the nutrition management needs of an older person living alone. The choice is a no-brainer.

Moreover, unlike the case of many of the in-home systems developed specifically for older adults and caregivers, the retail backing of companies like Samsung, Google and Apple greatly increases the likelihood that tomorrow's smart homes will be easy to use and supported—can you say Geek Squad or Genius Bar for caregivers? Better yet, consider the cost factor: unlike devices that are limited to specific medical or assistive applications, generalist home automation systems, while performing many of the same functions, will be subject to market forces, pushing prices downward and ensuring that a larger proportion of the population can reap the systems' benefits.

Does this mean that we aging and technology researchers are out of work? Not by a long shot. There will still be unique needs not filled by the mainstream market, and tweaks and corrections to be made within the coming smart home ecosystem. Questions of technology, learning, use and adoption will always remain. There will be many false starts and outright failures before we see an iPad-like solution for healthy aging at home—sleek, intuitive, useful, and accessible. However, a new frontier of research and business is emerging to develop a platform of services built on the retail Internet of Things. The home automation tech industry has thought little about the specific demands of an aging society. However, with a little creativity on the part of older users and caregivers, aging and tech researchers, as well as the service providers that inevitably emerge around Apple, Google, and Samsung products, we may well be on our way to achieving smart aging—by stealth.

MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.

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