Research center advances work on smart environments

By Michelle Fredrickson, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

serc-logoPULLMAN, Wash. – Someday, your phone may be so smart that it alerts you to get a decaf as you head to Starbucks, since you’ve already drunk five caffeinated cups of coffee that day. And sensors in your body may alert you to low insulin levels or the need for a deep drink of water.

Diane Cook

These are some of the possibilities being explored in the Smart Environments Research Center (SERC) on Washington State University’s Pullman campus. Diane Cook’s successful smart home research was the impetus for the center, which was conceptualized two years ago by Cook and her husband, fellow researcher Larry Holder.

The work on smart homes is in the commercialization process, and the center is helping Cook and other researchers successfully navigate the many stages of preparing a product for market.

Smart homes for the aging

Smart home research is primarily focused on helping aging people remain longer in their own houses. Sensors prompt homeowners to remember tasks like turning off the oven, shutting the door or taking medication. Sensors also recognize normal motion and behavior and can alert authorities in case of a fall or medical emergency.

Larry Holder

“I don’t care where you are in the world, nobody wants to leave their homes when they age,” Holder said. “And if you can keep someone out of assisted care, you can save society a lot of money.”

The smart home research, combined with growing emphasis on smart systems across WSU, led to creation of the SERC. The goal was to expand smart technology to any environment: a home, a community – even a human body.

Systems learn, react, extrapolate

A system is “smart” if it can make decisions with minimum human involvement. Researchers can teach a system to make decisions by inputting training data, which tells the system how to react in certain situations. From there, the system can extrapolate how it should behave.

“You don’t have to code this system,” Holder said. “A smart system will do that on its own.”

Hassan Ghasemzadeh

This can apply on larger and smaller scales. Hassan Ghazemzadeh, one of the SERC researchers, specializes in body sensors. Sensors on a human body will prompt a person to do something – like take a walk, drink water or some other behavior – aimed at keeping that person healthy.

Body sensors, smart farms

One of the benefits to working in the center is the opportunity for collaboration, which allows for bigger and better research projects, Holder said.

He said there is potential for smart systems to be used inside the body; for example, in treating patients with diabetes. In theory, a smart system located on or inside a person’s body could identify when insulin levels are low and release insulin into the bloodstream.

SERC researchers are hoping to work with colleagues in agriculture to develop smart farms that would use sensors to optimize animal and plant health.

The center is also training others about smart environments, something it hopes to expand in the future. This semester, a group from Saudi Arabia learned about smart homes.