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Videoconferencing ties seniors with families

Advances in technology may one day allow the elderly to virtually touch their grandchildren, family and friends. Photos: Dining with Grandma from miles away

Ruzena Bajcsy has been toiling away for the past three years on a 3D-videoconferencing system that could have a very personal benefit.

For Bajcsy, the Tele-immersive Environment for Everybody (TEEVE) project is more than just developing new ways for organizations and companies to interact. It holds the promise of one day allowing the 74-year-old grandmother to virtually appear in the same room as her four grandchildren, even though they're living in other states.

"Currently, videoconferencing is very limited. It just shows your face or a small image, and is not very robust," said Bajcsy, an electrical-engineering and computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The TEEVE project is just one of a number of technologies being developed that will add to a growing selection of videoconferencing packages for the elderly.

IT consulting giant Accenture, for example, is developing a telepresence dining experience for seniors called Virtual Dinner, while San Francisco-based start-up HeadThere is gearing up to offer a mobile-videoconferencing system called Giraffe.

Researchers say videoconferencing can have a dramatic effect on homebound seniors who are no longer able to leave their homes to visit family and friends.

In 2001, for example, a small study was conducted in Michigan with four homebound seniors, who were patched into their senior centers via videoconferencing over standard phone lines.

"Social workers at the senior center, the adult children of these seniors and the seniors themselves felt mostly positive about the experience. They felt they were part of their social network again," said Jennifer Gregg, an assistant professor with the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville and a former researcher on the Michigan study.

The TEEVE project uses 48 cameras to capture the subject's full-body image as he or she moves in front of a backdrop. A similar setup is housed where the other party is located, allowing the parties to peer into their respective monitors to synchronize their movements. The illusion of being in the same room is created by inserting a similar background into both locations and having the image unified.

The TEEVE project uses 13 computers per site, which processes the images as they move across the screen. Bajcsy said the equipment currently costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and would need to come down to $5,000 to be commercially marketable. She said the project is still another three to five years away from being technologically ready for commercial use, let alone consumer use.

Accenture's Virtual Dinner prototype is another form of videoconferencing with a futuristic bent. It's designed to automatically connect elderly family members with others on their contact list.

Motion detection sensors near the dinner table determine when someone is about to sit down for a meal. The information is then relayed to a remote server, which checks the status of all family members on the list to see if they are available, said Dadong Wan, senior researcher of Accenture Technology Labs.

Family members who are available press a button on their system and automatically connect to their elderly relative.

"We realized we needed to make something that was easy to use," Wan said. "We took all the operational things and automated them, so grandparents don't have to worry about how or when to connect."

Accenture has been demonstrating its Virtual Dinner prototype for the past six months. It uses off-the-shelf technology, tied together with its own integration efforts. Developers hope to find partners to further develop the technology. Wan estimates that a manufacturer would be able to get it to market within another 18 months to two years.

He added that the cost would likely be in the range of $500 to $1,000, if it were sold to the consumer market.

Take a look into some developing technologies for videoconferencing.

HeadThere, a San Francisco start-up, is developing a mobile-videoconferencing device called the Giraffe. The system includes a video monitor and a camera.

Although HeadThere is planning to initially sell its device to the commercial market, it has seen increasing interest from family members who wish to use it in the homes of their elderly parents or relatives.

"It would be useful for the elderly, since there are no requirements for technical savvy," said Roy Sandberg, a HeadThere co-founder.

The Giraffe is stationed in a docking bay, and once the phone rings, either the recipient can answer it, activating the Giraffe, or the account holder can activate the Giraffe without user interaction.

The system, which is based on the Linux operating system, relies on a broadband wireless connection, using an 802.11 wireless card. It works with 802.11b and 802.11g, and is currently being tested on 802.11n.

The Giraffe is expected to hit the market in the second half of 2008 and carry a retail price of between $1,800 and $3,000. Although the Giraffe will be marketed to businesses, Sandberg noted that consumers will be able to buy it directly from HeadThere.

While the Giraffe, Virtual Dinner and TEEVE systems have yet to make it to market, a number of other videoconferencing systems are already available, but they're largely geared toward the corporate user.

One of the more consumer-oriented videoconferencing systems is the D-Link DVC 1000, according to CNET Reviews.

Debby Thompson, a 57-year-old grandmother from Columbus, Ohio, uses Apple's iChat to stay connected to her two grandsons, ages 6 and 8, who live in Mexico with her eldest son.

"Four years ago, when the kids moved to Mexico, I began using iChat to make calls. When they added video capabilities, I bought a (Webcam). It's a great way to see the kids grow up," Thompson said. She has even baked cookies with her grandchildren via videoconferencing.

"The boys were in their kitchen with their father's iBook (laptop), and they watched me, as I instructed them," Thompson recalled. "It was really cute. They said, 'Can I use this pan? Can I mix this?'"

But while baby boomers like Thompson are at ease with the technology, she noted that her 86-year-old father from Michigan and 87-year-old mother-in-law from Cleveland, Ohio, are less adept.

"My mother-in-law would be thrilled to see her great-grandchildren (by videoconferencing). But computers can do the craziest things, and it's hard to give her help over the phone," Thompson said. "My parents didn't grow up with computers, so you have to have someone who's computer-savvy living nearby."

Thompson said her other children, a daughter who lives in her hometown and a second, younger son in Mexico, live too far away from her mother-in-law and father to be of technical assistance.

In the meantime, she keeps in contact with her two grandchildren via iChat and hopes to one day use the technology with her younger son.

"I used to have video chats with my younger son, when he lived with the older one, but now that he's moved out, I probably won't do much video chatting with him, until I want to see who he's dating," Thompson joked. "I'll want to see the live version."