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It’s been nearly three decades since the San Francisco-based gadget company Joseph Enterprises, Inc. developed The Clapper—a technology that allows people to turn their lights on and off with a simple clap of the hands.
Twenty-eight years later, as the Internet paved the way for more gesture-activation devices, researchers at the University of Washington have realized it’s possible to leverage Wi-Fi signals to detect a person’s movements within the confines of their homes—something they expect their project, dubbed WiSee, will play a pivotal role as the nation’s senior population wishes to age in place.
“The senior care industry would be a very good first application of WiSee,” says Gollakota. “If we had to list all of the possible directions we could take this technology, that would be one of the first directions we would go.”
Under UW’s WiSee project, an individual could use certain hand gestures to turn lights and kitchen appliances on and off, as well as control room temperature, all without having to place sensors on the human body.
The concept for this kind of gesture technology project draws comparisons to Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect platform in which players use various body movements to play motion-oriented video games.
While the Kinect requires users to stand in front of the video game’s sensor in order for the gestures to be read, the WiSee technology allows an individual to control household features from any room in the home.
“This is repurposing wireless signals that already exist in new ways,” says lead researcher Shyamnath Gollakota, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering. “You can actually use wireless for gesture recognition without needing to deploy more sensors.”
The technology’s multi-room accessibility could come in handy in the event that someone becomes injured or needs medical assistance, says Gollakota.
“If someone falls down or slips in the bathroom, it can be a disaster if they don’t have a way to call 911,” he says.
Since Wi-Fi signals can travel through walls and are not limited by line-of-sight or sound restrictions, WiSee can register gestures through a “smart” receiver developed by the UW team.
The challenging part has been developing an algorithm that extracts a sliver from a broad range of Wi-Fi signals emitting from various devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptop computers around the house. This slight extraction represents a disturbance in Wi-Fi signals any time someone moves a hand or a foot.
“Creating an algorithm that extracts tens of the millions of herz from a single signal has been like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says Gollakota.
In less than nine months since its start, the WiSee project has the capability to detect multiple people with a home. The system requires one receiver, which can be adapted from a standard Wi-Fi router, and additional antennae that tune into a specific user’s movements.
A main concern related to having multiple people using the WiSee system is the issue of privacy. While the UW team might have finished the foundation of the project, researchers are in the works of developing a secure access point, where a user can activate and login to WiSee with a series of gestures known only to them.
Currently, Gollakota and his team are evaluating what type of gestures would work as passwords, specifically natural movements that won’t take extraordinary effort to execute.
Another challenge project researchers are looking to tackle is figuring out how WiSee can detect an individual’s vital signs in the home, as the UW team insists this type of advanced remote monitoring technology will play significant role in furthering the independence and enhancing the lives of the nation’s aging population.