The maturing of the ambient assisted living market

smart technology Assisted living benefits

The population is growing rapidly - with the current world population of 7.6 billion expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. In parallel, the makeup of the global populace is gradually aging, and nowhere more than in Western Europe. One in three UK babies born in 2013 is expected to reach 100 in the UK alone, and the elderly population is forecast to double globally by 2030. Globally, life expectancy at birth has risen from 65 years for men and 69 years for women in 2000-2005 to 69 years for men and 73 years for women in 2010-2015, according to UN figures.

This ongoing shift in aging population has increased the strain on healthcare resources, with research showing that an 85-year-old man costs the UK NHS (National Health Service) about seven times more on average than a man in his late 30s. Health spending per person steeply increases after the age of 50, with people aged 85 and over costing the NHS an average of £7,000 a year.

The solutions are varied and complex, but there is certainly considerable potential for ambient assisted living (AAL) to have a significant impact on the problem. This has been recognised for some time, and a variety of European partnerships have been established to research and fund AAL development. One such, the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Program (AAL JP) was launched in the summer of 2008, and now supports more than 100 research projects.

The downstream opportunities for telcos and service providers are extensive - indeed, the ambient assisted living market size is estimated to grow from USD 1.20 billion in 2015 to USD 3.96 billion by 2020, at a CAGR of 22.4% between 2015 and 2020. This expansion can be seen in terms of the increasing demand, and also as a result of improving technology to deliver compact and cost-effective solutions. The wider picture of smart home technology penetration is also a key component here.

The fact is that AAL has been technically feasible in one form or another for some time, but there has been a psychological barrier to adoption that the technologists did not foresee - older citizens do not want to be disempowered by ‘special’ technology. As generations of digital natives age, the desirability of dedicated AAL reduces too - but this is where smart home services and enterprises also come to the rescue.

“As generations of digital natives age, the desirability of dedicated AAL reduces too - but this is where smart home services and enterprises also come to the rescue.”

Open standards-based smart home devices that address pain points common across all ages - such as smart lighting or heating, for example - can seamlessly form part of an AAL hardware offering, perhaps with a premium specialist monitoring service overlaid.

Similarly, a wide gamut of smart home sensors, from water and moisture meters, smoke alarms and motion detectors can easily serve dual-purpose in an AAL environment. Indeed, this networking of sensors and communications devices could take a step further, such as in the example of a smoke detector using DECT ULE to connect to mobile or fixed line networks that could be used as a communication device in a fire-related emergency.

It is this standards-based approach from the smart home world that offers the solution to the puzzle, the key for the lock. In a multi-generational family home different users can experience different user journeys and relationships with the smart home technology, breaking down age-related adoption barriers in usage, and also minimising difficulties in a user purchasing journey.

The value of voice

Voice is of course an increasingly key element of smart home initiatives today, and this has particular resonance in the AAL context. Not only from an accessibility point of view, but also by removing the psychological requirement to manually engage with technology, voice control is already breaking down technological barriers.

A topical example is Deutsche Telekom’s Qivicon, smart home platform which interoperates with Amazon Echo via an Alexa skill. The result is that customers can now control their lights, blinds, alarm systems and much more with just their voice. Different users can add an additional layer of personalisation by creating ‘situations’, such as an "Off to bed" – one where the lights are switched off in the living room and dimmed in the hallway, the heating is turned down and the blinds are lowered.

“Voice control is already breaking down technological barriers by removing the psychological requirement to manually engage with technology.”

The potential for this level of automation to have a significant effect on the lifestyles of the elderly is significant, and being able to control it through voice even more so. While challenges still exist in voice recognition systems, the technology as a whole has improved enormously in the last few years, aided not a little by huge leaps in the power of AI (artificial intelligence). The impact of AI on AAL will prompt a sea-change itself in the coming years, as rather than having to create a rules-based system (if I get up in the night, turn on the bathroom light), smart home and AAL systems will increasingly learn and apply context in specific situations.

The growth of ‘community’ IoT

Another innovative concept that will have a significant impact on AAL development is the broadening of smart home concepts to integrate into a social construct - called community IoT. While these social IoT deployments bring value to the whole community, it is arguable that older citizens stand to gain most from dedicated social networks of this type. Light touch monitoring of vulnerable citizens has been a challenge for generations, but having digital alternatives is not only increasingly viable but also essential. Combining easy control interfaces such as smartphones and voice with social networking technology should encourage active living, engagement and peace of mind for younger family members to boot.

The evolution of smart technology in answer to consumer needs will continue and the future sees smart home devices and concepts such as community IoT and AAL moving beyond our home’s four walls and out into the wider arena of smart cities. The smart city is the next step for the device interconnectivity and integration currently being offered by smart homes, as the same smart devices, technologies, platforms and services being used at home can also be leveraged for far more comprehensive connected capabilities.

An interesting pilot project in the Netherlands called Crosswalk demonstrates the potential for smarter cities themselves to significantly improve life for older citizens. With just an app on their smartphone, less mobile pedestrians automatically get longer red light timings, helping them cross wider junctions. The impact on city streets is almost imperceptible for others, but for the recipients it is life-changing.

toyota kirobo mini communication partner in hands of owner

The future holds considerable technological change, and there are hosts of researchers exploring how the future might look. One challenge in the UK looked into how physical mechanical helpers might help in the home. A recent challenge in the UK, the first European-Commission funded European Robotics League (ERL) tournament for service robots saw robots designed to support people with care-related tasks in the home put to the test in a simulated home environment. The assisted living robots of the teams faced various challenges, including understanding natural speech, and finding and retrieving objects for the user.

Meanwhile in Japan, Toyota has launched a Kirobo Mini communication partner, designed to provide companionship through natural conversation. The Kirobo will also interface with smart home technology, so users will be able to query compatible sensors and devices without engaging directly with the device itself, a huge potential boon for older people with limited mobility.

Just as in the present, however, the future of AAL and smart home technologies will still have much to do with trust. Recognised brands with robust track records in user security, data management, device compatibility and positive user experience will stand to gain significant market advantage from the expansion of the smart home into AAL. Brand recognition and resonance ages very well indeed...

Thomas Rockmann is vice president of ‘Connected Home,’ Deutsche Telekom’s white label smart home portfolio and joint-CEO of the group-wide smart home project. Thomas is responsible for all aspects of the Connected Home business and has been instrumental in growing the business and delivering the white label solution with different partners across Europe. Thomas joined Deutsche Telekom in 2000 as the group’s senior innovation manager for product lifecycle management, and has also served as vice president of business portfolio strategy at T-Home.