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updated 2/15/2011 10:48:15 AM ET 2011-02-15T15:48:15

Smart home applications can share all kinds of helpful info with homeowners, but a new housing platform can detect a strain on electricity -- and a strain on the heart.

"There is a growing population of elderly people, and there are statistics to show that more and more of them are going to live alone in the home," said Johann Siau, a senior lecturer in digital communication systems at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., who is leading the InterHome project.

The system was originally designed to provide remote access to a house so owners could be more energy-efficient. In a small-scale prototype of the system, embedded controller devices connect securely to the Internet. The owner can then monitor them with a cell phone or computer. User feedback helps the system adapt to routines, saving on electricity.

While thinking about responding to user behavior and an increasingly elderly population, the researchers decided to add wristband technology that senses vitals such as body temperature and pulse, Siau said.

"In the event that someone were to fall, it would detect the fall and it would immediately trigger the monitor of the pulse to see if the person has gone into shock," he said. "It's an early warning system that can alert any parties registered to monitor the person."

The wristband communicates with the home system wirelessly. Data from the band can be securely piped to the home network and accessed by authorized users. A functioning prototype of the wristband technology exists, but it's still too bulky.

"We're working on trying to scale it down to a level where it could potentially be a wrist-sized product," Siau said.

The team is also looking at adding other services, including a geo-tagging coordinate system that could send an alert if someone with Alzheimer's were to get lost.

Siau said that the university received government funding, enabling the researchers to work with the independent research firm BRE Group in Watford on testing the platform in real houses.

Jim Gaston is director of the Smart Home program at Duke University, an interdisciplinary research initiative focused on smart living. He called the InterHome system "a great idea" and added that Duke students worked on a similar idea using wearable radio frequency ID tags that could warn if the person wandered off or didn't move for a while.

But he cautioned that the technology presents new challenges.

"When you start instituting that on a larger scale, you have issues of privacy or security," he said.

Siau said the InterHome home system isn't intended to invade privacy. "We're thinking about the elderly people who are living alone with no one looking after them," he said. "Hopefully this will be able to alleviate some concerns and possibly save a few lives."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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