Benefacta 2006
Interface with the Future

.The digital home's naturalistic environment provides a comfortable meeting place for the Digital Home and Healthcare project team.
Michael Bloxham (left), CMD insight and research director, meets with students. The digital home's naturalistic environment provides a comfortable meeting place for the Digital Home and Healthcare project team.

Muncie's middle-America population makes Ball State the ideal location for the Digital Home and Healthcare facility in which researchers partner with companies throughout the world to investigate how people interact with digital media and technology and to conduct eye-tracking research.

Nearly everyone who grew up with cartoons on Saturday morning television likely has imagined living in the home of the Jetsons. In reality, though, would they put their housekeeping under the care of Rosie, the robot maid? Or trust an automated kitchen to prepare their food at the touch of a button?

The real-life counterparts of those kinds of questions are being pondered as part of Ball State University's Digital Home and Healthcare project. Rather than fun and fantasy, the research is serious business.

Designers and manufacturers of the products of tomorrow need to know how—or even if—people will use their latest technologies. They need to know which technology works, not just in the lab, but for actual users, and what products consumers are willing to assimilate into their daily lives. The digital space, including a home and connecting dry-lab medical office, provides a natural environment in which researchers and industry partners can investigate these questions.

"We're looking at how people interact with digital media and technology—what they feel comfortable with, what they accept, what barriers there may be to adoption," explains Bill Vaughn, manager of the Digital Home and Healthcare project, who works in concert with Michael Bloxham, director of insight and research for Ball State's Center for Media Design (CMD).

"We're concerned with the interfaces of digital technology and consumers," says Bloxham. "Our focus is not how technology works, but how it's applied, so we can achieve a better understanding of how it affects our lives—working, playing, learning, and staying healthy."

Bloxham was among the first at Ball State to identify a need for a naturalistic atmosphere in which product application and acceptance could be tested and assessed. Collaborating with Wise, Inc., a nontraditional general contracting and medical real estate firm based in Muncie, the university constructed the home and healthcare facility within a wing of the Wise headquarters building, located just a few miles from the Ball State campus.

Although the space is a living research laboratory outfitted with a wide range of cutting-edge technologies, it is not overly modern in design, nor is it filled with blinking lights and futuristic-looking objects. In fact, visitors walking into the facility—which includes a living room, kitchen, dining area, bedroom, bathroom, and exercise room, as well as a modularly designed medical office—might be hard-pressed to spot many of the technological advances.

"We've been using the phrase ‘invisibly digital,'" Vaughn says, explaining that the goal is to make test subjects feel comfortable, as if they are in their own homes or in a medical office to see a caregiver.

Because many of the digital home's capabilities are related to collecting, sharing, and using information, wireless connections are available, and the traditional-looking baseboards conceal a high-end network that can allow easy network hookups just about anywhere in the facility. The healthcare component is equipped with wireless and Ethernet capabilities, electronic medical record applications, and a video-conferencing-equipped consultation room.

A guided tour of the digital home reveals additional hard-to-spot "Gee-whiz!" technology from such providers as Microsoft, Sony, and Philips. A picture frame on the breakfast bar in the kitchen holds not just a single snapshot, but an entire digital slide show. A typical-looking bathroom mirror reflects the face of a person—until a switch is flipped and it begins displaying the Today show in one corner and current weather information in another—or whatever customized viewing and graphics, including graphic health reminders, the user inputs.

The bathroom scale appears average enough, but it can record a person's daily weight and transmit results wirelessly to a cable box that automatically shares it with the family physician; similar technology can do the same with blood pressure and glucose readings. In the home gym, an exercise bike is connected to a video console that can run video games, including the latest motorcycle-racing PlayStation game—pedal faster, and the motorcycle on the TV screen gains speed.

All of these technologies are either on the market or almost there, Vaughn says, noting that the digital home is not about technology decades into the future, but rather amenities no more than a few years away.

Much of the technology is health related. The adjoining simulated home and healthcare spaces enable researchers to study the potential relationships between digitally connected patients and their caregivers, particularly with regard to home healthcare monitoring of those with chronic illnesses and the growing elderly population that wishes to "age in place."

In addition to testing the functionality and adoption of technology, Ball State researchers are using the digital home as a site for their "eyetracking" research, which measures eye movements of individuals as they watch television, play video games, or surf the Internet. Measurements are taken for a variety of distances—from close-up computer screen to 10-foot-television screen viewing.

Such research can help broadcasters and graphic designers create more effective advertising communications and more intuitive computer interfaces by revealing what attracts viewers' attention and draws it from one part of the screen to another. The CMD also recently added mobile eye tracking to its repertoire, enabling researchers to track what is being viewed by people while they are mobile.

While the digital home provides Ball State students with immersive learning opportunities for honing research and technology skills, it also increases media attention and creates the potential for research collaboration among Ball State faculty and external partners.

Bloxham says that opportunities for conducting usability research for regional, national, and global companies are accelerating markedly. "Increasingly, companies want to understand how consumers respond to certain aspects of their products," he says.

In addition to working with client companies, Vaughn and other members of the digital home team also are involved in recruiting test subjects from the Muncie area, which has long been recognized for its ideal demographics for testing products and technologies. "A lot of technology companies are located in places that are not representative of the entire country," explains Vaughn, noting that Muncie's middle-America population, which is much more typical in its adoption of technology, makes Ball State's hometown the ideal location for digital home and healthcare research.