Why is the EU wasting money on R&D into homecare future scenarios that ignore the newest mass media?

Jennifer Hicks at Forbes gets enthusiastic for the CompanionAble Smart Home Project – a €7.8 million 4 year EU R&D project that involved putting a little yellow robot with blinky LCD eyes and a vertically mounted iPad-style display into the homes of elderly patients:

My thoughts:

Where can you find out more on these projects?

The Forbes article suggests that this video has been made following a 4 year project that involved 19 specialists working at the “Intelligent Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Reading (led by Prof Atta Badii) that received €7.8 million under the EU Seventh Framework Program. Here’s the 2 websites if you want to look for more info:


Inaccurate/Misleading Description

In markets like the UK I think the description of “Hector” as a “mobile assistive robot” would fall foul of Trading Standards regulations for descriptions of goods and services. I would suggest a more accurate description would be a “non-mobile robot that carries a touchscreen tablet that runs assistive software” (reworded much more succinctly of course).

EU incapacity to innovate

I’m not at all surprised to see another EU R&D failure. Earlier this year I was invited by the “European Commission’s DGINFSO” to participate in helping determine the “research priorities” for the successor of the “FP7″ project which has been unforgettably named the “EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020″.

To participate I was asked to “fax” them some information… for a chance of envisioning opportunities in 2020 I think they might want to first get up to speed with how the rest of us are already working (in 2012).

I can do everything demonstrated in the video and more with a mobile phone

When you are looking to research future scenarios it seems obvious that you’d look to see if it can already be done today with technology that’s already mass market. What we see in the video doesn’t even require much shopping around eg. the developers who put together the Doro Experience at EasyPhone brand Doro have not only created this and more but they’re already busy commercialising it (something that’s really hard and they have a proven track record for doing).

“Hector is impressive on many levels”

Watching this wheeled robot bobble across the hard floor I can’t imagine this is going to transverse homes with carpeted flooring, make light work of opening doors (these would need to be closed for fire regulations) or make it’s way up stair cases (the UK is the world’s largest stairlift market).

With a mobile phone plus strategically mounted (eg. bedside, kitchen and living room) tablets you’ve got this covered and you wouldn’t also have the problems of knee balancing or charger leads:

Fall detection

The video doesn’t expand on how the robot manages this but you can use mHealth and M2M solutions to do it at a fraction of the cost eg. a Doro Easyphone with remotely configurable automatic speakerphone answer feature, a M2M connected care monitor for $99 (which would also offer temp/power failure/intruder monitoring).

Storing my glasses safe in his pocket

For $10k isn’t it clear we could just have patients buy themselves several pairs of glasses and leave them wherever they need/want?

Better still with cloud based tech like Google Goggles you could have patients snap text with their mobile and then add lots of new possibilities eg. look up the content, find the TV show and add it to your diary.

Video conferencing fail

You would have to have your head in the sand to be showing tech like this. Where’s the presence? Where’s the caller ID? Who dragged this UI together?

Turns out “someone” is this young man (although you don’t find out until you let him see inside your home):

Oh and the excessive hand waving bit at the end – that’s because they’ve not put any self image on the screen (even this young user demonstrating the tech hasn’t got a clue what the other caller is seeing).

Need to take control of TV’s with mobile

Samsung’s doing some great work with it’s Smart TV’s/remote control apps and everyone’s expecting Apple TV to open up some new options but this idea of having a robot following you about telling you what regular TV programs you’ll be watching later on really seems to be missing the TV program reminder needs of seniors.

Problems that will never exist

How does “Hector” plan to remind me when I’m walking by the ATM? Are there plans to retire “Hector” when mobile money takes away the need for senior citizens to carry cash?

Who really needs a robot to carry their wallet around their home?

Are these developers living in a parralel universe where Mobiles are yet to be invented?

After watching the video twice I’m left thinking the developers must have either never used a smartphone or been directed to build for a future when mobile phones are extinct.

Of course some people think that seniors can’t or won’t get smartphones but they are wrong. Of course it’s a challenge (one that I’m familiar with having helped an 82 year old who had never had a mobile to not only love her new mobile but to also discover the value of SMS) but the benefits of the opportunity that we’ve seen in markets like Japan (the worlds most senior market) are so significant (and life saving) that’s it well worth making the effort as it presents probably the biggest opportunity to enhance community care, control future healthcare costs and connect communities.

“Hector hasn’t been ‘toy-ified’ as most robots are today”

I wonder if Jennifer missed the blinky LCD eyes? Perhaps I’m just an out of touch fuddy-duddy and I’ll only really begin to synch with my Smart Microwave or TV when it gets a pair of eyebrows?

“He comes when you call him”

So what if I can’t? Obviously this only works when you’re sharing the same hard floor as Hector eg. you’re outside the house, in the garden, staying at a friends, etc. you can forget it…

Maybe it’s intentional and they’ve actually tried to make Hector a bit “retro” – as this bit about finding out you have voicemail messages when you get home is very 1993 for me.

Compliance failure

I can only imagine this will prove increasingly tiresome for patients:

But I’m certain it will have no impact on medication adherence:

Will Hector be just another thing for the independently living to worry about?

What’s with the urgency to hurry off? How long does this robot hold its charge for? 5 mins?


I take it the designer of this experience has never ever suffered back pain:

There are also some glaring user experience challenges as interaction with the device flips between voice and touchscreen control:

I guess they didn’t want to labor on the voice control as it would have become obvious the whole home could just as easily be controlled by locating a few cheap microphones/speakers and a Nuance speech control system (as developers in Denmark have already done).

Door locks

Rather than a fingerprint scanner I can think of 20 ways involving mobile that are cheaper, more secure, easier to add to existing premises, require less maintenance and enable remote control (something that I find very helpful when I’m away and need to permit entry to a guest):

“More importantly, Hector, unlike so many other robotic projects that emerge from labs or universities, is proving that commercialization to mass market is feasible beyond a Roomba”

What’s the retail price? What proof is there? For the next “Roomba” I think it’s safe to check out Vileda’s hard floor mop.

What do you think? Am I being too critical? Will you be queuing up to buy a “Hector”?

3 Responses to Why is the EU wasting money on R&D into homecare future scenarios that ignore the newest mass media?

  1. […] 30 August:  David Doherty over at 3G Doctor Blog has quite a different and much less enthusiastic view of Hector and the entire CompanionAble […]

  2. […] Perhaps we’ll have to see the design adapted quite significantly before it takes off. Perhaps it will first be styled into something more wearable like into prescription glasses that can be worn discretely for seniors who are living independently in their own homes eg. as an alternative to those crazy engineer designed mobile assistive robots: […]

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