Delivering online assistance to the needy

Video telephony allows immediate contact with people at home, enables them to continue living at home and relieves pressure on care-providers by reducing physical journeys. It was first tested in Europe in the early 1990s using analogue cable. Though costly and bulky, these pioneering systems were shown to be helpful for elderly people who also liked using them.

Under the project IST@HOME, researchers developed an affordable and usable video-telephony system that built on work done in a series of European Union-funded projects to design home and care-provision systems for elderly people. It comprises a small movable camera, a set-top box for a TV and a handheld service pad. Together, these components enable users to see, talk to or seek assistance from professional carers in real time, over the Internet.

"Our focus was on visual communications and user acceptance," says Simon Robinson, the project's coordinator. "We wanted to go beyond the state-of-the-art for systems in the home environment. Our goal was to allow users to communicate from any room in the house and to talk to service staff via a TV set rather than a desktop PC."

The project partners, funded under the European Commission's IST programme, installed the complete system in some 600 homes in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Portugal and tested it for six months. They also produced portable video-communications devices which can be carried from room to room. The size of an A4 sheet of paper, these devices are standard tablet PCs with a video camera.

Older users and service staff expressed great appreciation for the project's services and systems, with most of both groups saying they would like to use them in future if possible. Both groups also rated the video quality acceptable to very acceptable at the data rate used, which was typically 256 kbits/second.

However, service staff identified some problems. These included alarm integration, eye-to-eye contact, lack of syn

Contact: Tara Morris
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