Imagine a world in which the walls of your living room measure your pulse, your kitchen floor informs you of your weight as you eat, and your bed wakes you up before you start to snore. While it may all sound too cozy for comfort, smart rooms fitted with specially adapted sensors are already here, and researchers have discovered a number of surprising applications.
The Finnish company Emfit has developed a sensor-enhanced film that can wirelessly measure a person’s vital signs. The film can be placed in walls, beneath a thin layer of cement flooring, or in mattresses.
“The sensors are essentially wellness monitors,” says Heikki Raisanen, CEO of Emfit. “They look at pulse, heart, and respiration. More importantly, they can help track trends in vital signs over time to detect health problems sooner.”
Emfit is looking to use the sensor film in the manufacture of smart cribs to help prevent infant deaths. The technology might also give doctors and drug makers the sort of monitoring capability that is normally available only in hospitals. This would enable medical professionals to track both the effectiveness and the potential side effects of prescribed treatments.
“By studying many people over weeks and months, doctors will be able to look at the data gathered from the sensors and say, ‘This medication caused restless sleep. The respiration is much better with this one,'” says Raisanen.
Overworked nurses could use smart beds to monitor patients more reliably and easily, without having to constantly ensure that the patient is hooked up to an EKG or EEG. That in turn would have a positive, though indirect, effect on medical costs.
The Finnish government, however, has found an even more provocative use for the technology: smart jail cells in police stations to monitor the health of suspects in custody.
The low cost of the technology might make smart jail cells an attractive option for the U.S. prison system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 2 million inmates in federal and state prisons across the United States; nearly a quarter of them report having some medical problem. Health care for prisoners costs American taxpayers an average of $3.3 billion annually. Smart jails could reduce those costs.
Smart jails could also contribute to a more secure prison environment. The U.S. Census Bureau recorded more than 34,000 prison assaults in 2000. If the smart rooms could be made sensitive enough to detect subtle increases in blood pressure or brain-wave activity, they could alert prison staff when an inmate is about to become violent, essentially predicting a crime before it occurs. The sensors might also be made to detect minute shifts in weight and alert prison authorities when an inmate is carrying contraband.
While it may be several decades before smart jails, beds, and rooms can detect signals as subtle as brain waves, the basic technology for their production exists today. -Patrick Tucker
Sources: The Society of Chemical Industry, 14/15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS. United Kingdom. Web site www.soci.org .
Emfit Ltd., Konttisentie 8, FI-40800 Vaajaski, Finland. Web site www.emfit.com .
<I>Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2005</i>