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Avatar 'could care for elderly' in future, claim researchers


An intelligent avatar that would detect whether people are in pain and alert the emergency services could help the elderly remain independent and in their own homes, say UK researchers.

The avatar could appear as a figure on a television screen, a tablet computer or as a hologram, according to the University of Kent, which is taking a leading role in the project to support the UK’s ageing population.

It could then be used to monitor heart rate and blood pressure, remind people to take medication and it would know if someone had fallen over or was in pain, alerting the doctor or the emergency services, a university spokesman said.

“A humanised avatar could revolutionise how an individual’s personal, social emotional and intellectual needs are met in the future”

Dr Jane Reeves

The avatar would be able to analyse the person’s speech, movement and facial expression to detect their mood and respond accordingly.

The system would not need computer literacy and would be no more challenging to operate than switching on a television, he said.

The project, known as Responsive InTeractive Advocate (RITA), is being headed by Kent’s Centre for Child Protection and has won a share of £2.4m in funding from the Technology Strategy Board.

The RITA project is one of six aimed at developing new cost-effective ways of helping elderly people to continue to live comfortably and independently in their own homes.

Kent is working with the University of Portsmouth who will focus on developing the interactive avatar, while Winchester-based Affective State will work on sensing and forecasting emotional well-being and Glasgow-based We Are Snook will focus on the user experience design.

Dr Jane Reeves, co-director of the Centre for Child Protection, said: “There is a major debate about how we provide care for vulnerable people across all age groups and this project is seeking to meet one of our biggest challenges, which is ensuring older adults can remain independent for as long as possible.

Dr Jane Reeves

Dr Jane Reeves

“Although this project is at an early stage, with a number of technical, moral and ethical issues to be addressed, the development of RITA in the form of a humanised avatar could revolutionise how an individual’s personal, social emotional and intellectual needs are met in the future.

“RITA would exist as a digital champion, an advocate in the form of an avatar, providing a friendly interface between the individual, family, friends, professions and services.”

Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, said: “This is an expanding market and we need to radically rethink our approach to long-term care provision, providing options that will enable people to live with more dignity and autonomy.

“We focus innovation activity on areas where we think it can make the biggest difference.

“Late life care is often regarded as an economic liability but it can actually be an engine for economic growth.”


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Readers' comments (5)

  • michael stone

    I'll probably be ready for one of these soon - at the moment, when I find myself talking to the TV, I think 'I'm losing it !', but this would make it legitimate.

    Anything that makes sense, and helps the growing elderly population, is worth trying - but I [probbaly] don't like 'clever screens to interact with' as an ALTERNATIVE to person-to-person interaction for elderly people, who tend to be lonely enough already.

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  • so avatars will take on all the work while there are more and more jobless?

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  • michael stone | 4-Mar-2014 3:20 pm

    I agree is should not replace person to person interaction, and all sounds a bit big brother-ish to me. Nothing would be sacred, and could even envisage some observations, deemed hilarious, could go viral, horrendous thought!

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  • An amazing device! Parents in their own homes, safely is the best solution to their needs and to the NHS

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  • michael stone

    B R | 5-Mar-2014 8:34 pm

    It isn't quite clear exactly what is proposed, or how it would work. Presumably the idea is a combination of using things like:

    Remote monitoring of the vulnerable (checking for falls, other 'sudden medical crises', etc);

    Providing 'prompts' to those who need to be prompted (to take medications on time, remind them of hospital appointments or even, perhaps, that a DN is due to call round soon, etc);

    Perhaps providing feedback - answering questions about 'how do I contact whoever', etc, by providing something akin to 'an easy to ask expert who is always available';

    'Putting a friendly face' on the technology that is doing this - to use the avatar, to make it feel more like person-to-person interaction, than like being 'told to do things by a machine'.

    It looks like a 'half-way house' to the idea of mobile robotic 'carers', which is an idea being worked on, but presumably costs [much] more than this would.

    I do have 'doubts' regarding:

    'The avatar could appear as a figure on a television screen, a tablet computer or as a hologram,'

    As the NHS cannot usually even get a nationwide computer system to work properly, inter-operability of 'this concept' across such a range of devices, looks as if it could be too much of a [design] challenge ?

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