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Could a smart mirror save your life?

‘Smart’ health systems turn household devices, such as TVs and mirrors, into information panels that help assess the state of your health. Image: Shutterstock
‘Smart’ health systems turn household devices, such as TVs and mirrors, into information panels that help assess the state of your health. Image: Shutterstock

Looking in the mirror in the morning can help us assess when we are under the weather. Now researchers are using modern technology to capture information about physical appearance to assess the state of health of elderly people.

Smart mirrors equipped with low-cost wireless video cameras that monitor a person’s emotional and physiological state are being developed as part of the EU-funded project USEFIL. 

A simple camera behind the mirror gathers data on physiological indicators such as pupil size and skin colour using facial detection algorithms. The results provide clues about the person’s emotional state and may also spot serious health issues.

The results can be displayed as infographics on the mirror’s surface, along with a calendar and a clock. Carers and health professionals can also access this material in order to prescribe medication, schedule appointments and send reminders.

Users in Greece, Israel and the UK are currently trialling a simplified smart mirror prototype as part of a suite of systems aimed at creating smart living environments for older people, with initial results suggesting it is easy to use and understand.

Other components of the USEFIL system include a smart watch, which can notify emergency services in the case of an accident, a tablet PC, a Kinect system and a smart web TV device.

‘All these systems are interconnected,’ explained project coordinator Dr Homer Papadopoulos. ‘So, for example, the smart watch can be used as an easy and safe way to log in to the USEFIL site in the TV.’

Experts estimate that a third of Europeans will be over 65 by 2060 and the pressure is on to develop innovative ways to help this age group stay healthy and engaged with day-to-day life.

Because USEFIL software is built on open source platforms, third-party developers will be able to create their own applications aimed at the ageing population and add them to the system, vastly increasing the scope of services available.

Doctors can also use the USEFIL portal to access their patients’ health records, allowing them to communicate via audio and video to create e-questionnaires, prescribe medications and schedule appointments.

Silver surfing, safely

One obvious concern about using digital technology to monitor health is the security of confidential personal data. This is being addressed by the USEFIL team. Beyond the standard consent forms and anonymisation of data, the technology ensures that private information is kept private.

‘We’ve adopted a secure approach whereby no user’s data nor monitoring information is transmitted outside their house,’ said Dr Papadopoulos. A data fusion service keeps all low-level monitoring data within the house and transmits only important high-level events, such as acute health episodes, outside it.

Another similar project, FARSEEING, is also aware of the need to ensure privacy. Now in its final year, this project is incorporating wearable technology with home-based gadgets to help the elderly reduce their risk of falls.

‘There is a general lack of information on why and how falls happen so often in the elderly population.’

Professor Lorenzo Chiari, FARSEEING project coordinator

‘Our wearable devices and other technologies do not allow individuals to be located and do not allow information to be changed remotely, without the user’s prior knowledge and consent,’ said Professor Lorenzo Chiari, the project’s coordinator.

Wearable technology

In the FARSEEING project’s ‘smart home’, smartphones and wearable movement sensors use radio frequency detection (RFID) technology to track a person’s location.

The system constantly generates feedback, reminders and stimuli for the user. It sets targets – for example, to walk an hour a day at a certain intensity – or asks them to test their range of movement, displaying progress on the smartphone screen.

It is also equipped with a fall detector and alarm, as well as a risk management system which keeps health professionals up-to-date on the person’s health, mobility, and specific risk factors.

‘The system is designed to be modular, meaning that each user can choose both the infrastructure and the level of service according to his or her needs,’ said Prof. Chiari. ‘The smartphone can be considered the entry level solution while the dedicated wearable unit is a solution for higher risk users who need to be monitored continuously for longer periods.’

The FARSEEING researchers will be able to use aggregate data from the system to build a ‘fall database’, with the aim of improving the understanding, prediction and prevention of these damaging events.

‘There is a general lack of information on why and how falls happen so often in the elderly population,’ said Prof. Chiari. ‘This database will, for the first time, enable researchers to study the nature of a fall based on enough objectively measured data.’

As the baby-boom generation retires and average life spans rise, so does the need for products that promote independent living. Vigi’Fall, a miniature electronic skin patch designed to detect falls, establish their cause, and ‘call’ for medical attention, is currently being commercialised as the result of the EU-funded FALLWATCH project. It is hoped these other solutions will follow; tapping into an ageing market and helping the elderly live more safely.

Personalised health care

Research on independent living is a major focus of Horizon 2020, the EU's research funding programme running from 2014 to 2020, especially through ways to help people manage their healthcare themselves.

It includes research into ways to promote healthy lifestyles, prevent disease, and enable people to take a role in managing their own health.

Between 2008 and 2013, more than EUR 1 billion was invested by the European Union, European Member States and industry into research to help people age well. During that period, EUR 400 million was distributed via the EU's FP7 research funding programme, EUR 700 million through the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme and EUR 50 million on large scale pilot projects in the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP).

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