Home Automation Brings Dignity, Independence to Residents with ALS
'Smart home' technology provides improved quality of life to residents with MS and Lou Gehrig’s disease: controlling lights, thermostats and entertainment at Boston's Leonard Florence Center.
Steve Saling escorts me to the house he shares with nine other people, chatting along the way, as he takes me up the elevator and through the motorized front doors of his pad. He shows off the entertainment system in his bedroom, streams some Pandora radio through the in-wall speakers, and adjusts the lights, shades and thermostat just so.
His home automation system is pretty typical, but Saling is not: He has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Like most of his housemates, Saling has no control over his arms, legs, hands, voice and other faculties. He can move his head pretty well, though, and that’s all it takes to operate a custom control system from Promixis, a mostly-DIY home automation vendor since 1998.
The center, funded in part by the Chelsea Jewish Foundation, opened in 2010 with space for 100 residents in 10 living areas, or houses, each with about 7,000 square feet of living space. Residents — most of them elderly — vary in their ability to manage activities of daily living.
Daily living is especially challenging for Saling and his nine housemates in varying stages of ALS, a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Across the hall, PEAC is used by 10 more residents who have multiple sclerosis and slightly more dexterity.
“When I was diagnosed [with ALS], the doctors told me to get all my affairs in order,” says Saling.
One of those “affairs” was to find a suitable home control system and a place where he and other ALS sufferers could live somewhat independently. A landscape architect by trade who “always had a knack for technology,” Saling worked with the folks at Promixis to tailor the company’s off-the-shelf home control system for the special needs of ALS and MS patients.
Promixis is a home automation vendor made famous a decade ago with its NetRemote and Girder PC-based home control software, which continues to attract an enthusiastic base of DIY consumers.
“It was a perfect fit,” says Jason Mullen, the executive director of Leonard Florence. “They have a proven track record but they’re small enough to give us special attention.”
Another key reason for selecting Promixis was that “besides the software, everything is non-proprietary,” says Mullen, an admittedly non-technical guy who now has a keen understanding of PEAC. “Steve was insistent on that.”
Promixis managed the job from its headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif., using subcontractors for the installation and programming the system via the Internet.
PEAC software is hosted locally on a Linux server at the Leonard Florence Center; it does not require Internet connectivity, but remote access is available for system programming and, of course, for streaming content and other online services.
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Low-cost, networkable I/O devices such as Global Caché serial, IP, relay and IR adapters, enable local control of audio, video, shades, motorized doors and other automated gear. A home-grown Promixis adapter bridges the IP network to UPB-enabled lights and appliances that communicate over the home’s standard AC wiring. The thermostat is controlled via IP — all fairly standard fare for a modern-day home automation system.
The user interface, though, is a different story. Absent the use of hands and voice, Saling and several of his housemates require nothing but head movements to control their environment and communicate.
A tiny reflective dot attached to Saling’s glasses controls a tablet PC mounted to the wheelchair (head paddles control the movement of the wheelchair itself ).
The head tracker is used like a mouse, with software engineered especially for people with limited dexterity. For example, intelligent word processors can finish words and sentences for the user. A text-to-speech engine gives voice to the written word.
“All of this varies with each resident,” says Promixis CEO Ron Bessems. “Head tracking or eye gaze-tracking, sip-and-puff, or using eyebrows — all of these can be used to control a computer and thus PEAC. Some give full mouse control; others need scanning interfaces. PEAC provides both.”
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Email Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org
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