On a warm December evening in 2018, I heard the phrase “Digital Enhanced Living” for the first time, and it got me interested and also a bit confused. I had heard of related terms like mobile health and smart homes before, and I even used smart devices daily, but what exactly did “Digital Enhanced Living” mean?
These words reminded me of the scene from Disney’s 2008 animated film Wall-E, where humans on the spaceship Axiom went about their lives assisted by robots and smart digital entities. Although the movie was, at least for me, about environmentalism and the growing challenges around pollution and waste, the scene does indicate what smart technology and “digitally enhanced living” could look like in the future. Fast-forward twelve years to 2020, and we are surrounded by intelligent assistants built right into our smartphones to devices like smart speakers and smart lights in our homes that assist us in our daily routines and automate a lot of ‘mundane’ tasks. However, these developments are not restricted to home appliances alone, and today major tech giants like Google and Apple have been investing in the smart health domain as well.
Sensing Technologies and IoT
While science fiction has given us plenty to see in medical technology, we’re currently not yet as technically advanced as shown in the movies. But we are not far behind either. The recent advancements in the development of new and innovative miniaturised sensors have made it easier to integrate several of them into every day wearable smart devices such as wristwatches, belts and even into fabrics. The use of such sensors has seen a steady growth over the past few years, and they have opened up new avenues for monitoring and influencing one’s health (i.e., vital signs, activities, nutrition etc.) continuously (and remotely) in a user-friendly manner. Wearables and fixed sensors also provide an effective platform for collecting real-time health metrics which may also be useful in medical research in a way that is more convenient and less intrusive!
The healthcare domain has seen numerous challenges, one of which is providing care for individuals with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s or degenerative disorders inducing the loss of motor skills where observing and monitoring patient activities and providing effective feedback becomes very difficult. Sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes can be very useful in these situations where a better understanding of patient activities can be obtained to provide improved care. Similarly, sensors such as heart rate monitors, pulse oximeters and spirometers can be used to measure physiological metrics to monitor one’s physical condition at all times, at a low cost.
A set of connected sensors could support real-time patient monitoring which can be highly desirable for any form of physical deterioration. Integrating such devices in one’s homes to establish a smart home environment can be very useful for monitoring physiological signs and in the end, improving the quality of life. While this may not be too appealing for everyone, this technology could have a positive impact to the elderly who live alone at home without much support. Traditional healthcare models rely on patients being monitored when they are visited at homes by nurses or during their visits to the physicians, which may not always be possible. Given the current state of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices, we can see the main benefits of a connected network of sensors such as their portability, ease of use, real-time data collection and the potential for remote monitoring and support.
What About Software?
Hardware alone cannot solve the challenges faced in this domain and requires extensive software support not only for driving the connected sensors and collecting generated data but also for managing the collected metrics. Mobile systems offer an inexpensive platform for delivering quality access to medical assistance and healthcare when needed. This can be seen as a desirable factor in supporting patients by integrating wearable and fixed sensors with mobile applications for tracking personal health. The ability of modern smartphones to support third-party applications offers enormous flexibility for users (and their carers), but also raises one concern around the availability of thousands of health apps in commercial app stores for numerous use-cases. However, the lack of a platform for aggregating a diverse set of sensors and the need to (often) use more than one application are two challenges that are currently being worked on.
Cloud-based applications offer a viable solution to the challenges around the processing power and storage capacity of mobile devices and have been growing in popularity. These platforms along with powerful mobile devices with a range of built-in connectivity options are becoming increasingly popular for developing mHealth solutions. Given the current interest around analytics in the health domain, such solutions may help not only with managing one’s own health, but also with detecting anomalies over a larger population. Today, several health applications are available for detecting several health anomalies and for providing better healthcare and include systems for cardiac care, managing diabetes, obesity, stroke and even timely interventions for diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Hardware and software components go hand-in-hand and a combination of these systems can be integrated together to form a complete solution for support at homes, aged-care residences and even in hospitals.
Current mHealth applications have seen some barriers to adoption, such as the confusion of a wide range of applications to choose from, uncertainty around and lack of knowledge of mHealth applications. Users are also known to dislike downloading multiple applications as they unnecessarily increase the number of applications on their smartphones. Similarly, a 2015 study on the use of health applications revealed the burden of repeated data entry as one reason why people stop using such apps. This, along with other factors like hidden costs and confusion around apps, indicates poor user experience.
Developing systems that offer better user experience, are user-friendly and address user requirements is essential to increase technology adoption. Participatory design of these applications where end-users are also involved in the design process would be an effective approach to ensure these systems live up to user expectations. Similarly, given the sensitivity of health data, privacy and security of these metrics are critical to ensure user confidence and trust in this domain which ultimately would enhance the health and wellbeing of end-users.
Today, a majority of Australians prefer to live at home for as long as possible rather than an aged-care facility and we’re now facing an aged-care sector that is changing rapidly. With the current advances in technology, the question is what can be done so that one can benefit from these developments? By building something that meets one’s needs we can empower people to enjoy the lifestyle they desire. At the ARC Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living, the main research themes such as developing platforms for integrating data sources, building next-gen sensing technologies and the integration of the outcomes in different settings all point to this idea.
So, what does Digital Enhanced Living mean for us? The answer is rather simple really – it means using modern technology to build tools that can make a practical impact and a difference in the lives of people living alone at home by themselves. It means allowing people to lead a normal and enhanced life, and in the end, it’s all about building solutions to improve one’s quality of life!
Ben Joseph Philip
ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Digital Enhanced Living PhD scholarship recipient
NB: The author reserves the right to showcase/publish this blog piece elsewhere and/or in a different medium.
Editorial review by:
Associate Professor Niranjan Bidargaddi, Chief Investigator
Kevin Hoon, Hub Manager