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IBM-patented floor could detect a heart attack, call the cops

The surface-based computing tech detects the shapes and weights of objects in contact with the floor to improve home security and provide medical support.

Would you like your floor knowing who is doing what where? IBM

File this under the bizarre but potentially life-saving category of new tech: an intelligent floor that knows who is doing what on a given surface, and can alert police or first responders in the event of an intrusion or medical emergency.

IBM, which filed for a patent describing such a system in February 2009, is now, just more than three years later, the proud holder of said patent. What it does with it remains to be seen, but the initial vision is clear.

From the patent abstract, IBM reports on an approach that "uses an electronic multitouch floor covering that has numerous sensors to identify shapes."

It goes on to report on two primary applications: smart surveillance (which it claims would result in fewer false alarms than current systems that require disarming before entering) and medical monitoring. To wit:

In one embodiment, at step 960, object inactivity is sensed, such as a person lying prone on the floor. In one embodiment, also at step 960, the current health status of the object is retrieved, if possible, such as using a heart-rate monitor or other such device. A determination is made, based on the data received in step 960, as to whether the object might need assistance (decision 965).

For example, an elderly person may have fallen on the floor and cannot get up, or a person may have suffered a heart attack or other possibly life-threatening incident. If a health alert is detected, then decision 965 branches to "yes" branch 970 whereupon, at step 975 appropriate action is taken (e.g., contact emergency medical services (EMS), sound alarm, notify a caretaker, etc.).

Imagine a system so sensitive it would discern who is doing what where. The pros are pretty clear; I wouldn't mind being able to live independently well into old age, thanks to such a system monitoring my day-to-day well being so closely, regardless of whether I remembered, say, to wear my fall-detection device.

On the other hand, one can imagine such a system being programmed to detect, and store, far more personal details. Are you a closet couch potato? How long did you sit on the pot this morning? How much weight did you really gain over the holidays? Wait, you want the system to ignore the unauthorized visitor who is now entering your bedroom? And so on.

We'll have to wait and see how IBM puts this patent to use, but if Kubrick taught me anything, it's that HAL doesn't like to be stepped on.