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.

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