Intelligent Environments

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Computers are getting cleverer; we even use artificial intelligence to enhance our own. But that’s not where technology ends. Our surroundings are getting smarter too. Various products are being developed to form a network of intelligent objects; for example, walls that sense when you’re present to screen the latest news. Of course, this has its benefits, but in some cases, developers may be taking the idea too far. This article gives three examples of how intelligent environments could affect you: at home, in hospitals and care centres, and in rural areas.

In Smart Homes, all electric appliances are connected through a home network, enabling seamless communication between devices, and with the user. Currently, this kind of home technology focuses on conveying information; some high-end refrigerators now come fit with LCD screens in the doors, and there are even interactive walls that contain displays and digital pin boards.

Future plans for Smart Homes include location technology that not only tracks the occupants, but is aware when they are ill, and is capable of summoning emergency help. This type of technology would also mean that you could make a simple check that all doors and windows are locked, and that the gas is turned off. You would have better control over lighting, heating, and security, and thus a lower energy bill. Existing electric wiring could be used to set up a network such as this, but it would be more efficient to use radio waves similar to a simplified form of Wi-Fi.

Market penetration of Home Automation Systems such as these, has, until recently, been very low. This is mainly due to the complexity of the infrastructure required, and technological compatibility issues. The emergence of cloud computing, however, may shortly provide solutions to these issues. Household appliances could be connected to your own home cloud, and cloud management software would serve as in-house support.

Similar embedded technology could be used for automated hospital environments. One application would concern the positioning of people and objects. At the moment, a specific person or product can be tracked, but in a limited way. The use of ubiquitous technologies could add the extra spacial dimension, so that customized services could be offered to doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors. All users could access this network with their own mobile devices. This would, for example, improve speed and accuracy when checking a patient’s health records. Furthermore, intelligent environments could provide support for diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Behaviour analysis could be used to monitor early warning signs and evaluate the effectiveness of therapy.

Easy as these applications might be to implement in already technology-oriented urban locations, embedding electronics in rural, but socioeconomically important areas requires a different approach. Human-computer interaction can be used to enrich experiences in natural environments, but how to merge technology and nature, without a network to plug into? You can’t charge your tablet in the middle of a field; in remote locations there is little or no internet connection; and screens are difficult hard to read in direct sunlight. Lack of infrastructure and product design are not the only barriers to creating a rural intelligent environment. To most people, rural locations hold different meanings to urban ones. This does not simply mean a call for different software and the installation of a couple of sensors, but for a redefinition of technology itself. While a handful of designers and engineers see nature as the next big challenge in their world-enhancing schemes, it is still nice to be able to enjoy one’s surroundings off-grid, from time –to-time, knowing that the simplicity of nature can often be smarter than you might think.