Messaging Kettles and Connected Homes

Let me introduce you to Mary, a cheerful, strong lady who retired a few years ago. Mary lives alone and has two children, Alistar and Lenore, whom she loves dearly. Alistar and Lenore try to catch up with Mary as often as they can, but they both have busy lives with families of their own, and they live far away. Mary has heard all about the latest technologies like tablets and social media. Alistar bought a smartphone for Mary and one of her granddaughters tried to show her how to use it, but Mary can’t remember how to use it so the device has been gathering dust on the coffee table.

Mary’s situation is by no means uncommon. Older people often find it hard to keep up with the latest innovations, but communication technologies have become increasingly important to stay in touch with loved ones, especially if they live far away. Feeling socially connected to family and friends is key for a happy and healthy lifestyle. A lack of social contact, or social isolation, has severe health implications and is often associated with depression, anxiety and even premature death.

To help elderly like Mary to live independently yet feel connected to family, a range of research initiatives have studied and prototyped smart home tools. One of those has taken a new approach, using a messaging kettle to connect elderly with their family members.

The Messaging Kettle
Researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) prototyped and tested the idea of a ‘Messaging Kettle’, which is a small device that sits next to a kettle in two different homes, like in the houses of Mary and her daughter Lenore. When Mary makes a cup of tea, a warm light will glow in Lenore’s house and vice versa.

The Messaging Kettle with Professor Margot Brereton

The researchers found that this glowing light simulated a chance encounter between people that are geographically dispersed. It creates a feeling of connection when both Mary and Lenore are in the kitchen, and indicates that it might be a good time to call each other to have a chat. The device also allows to sent simple voice and text messages with a simple push of a button.

Because Mary makes tea everyday, this act does not require her to learn anything new or to change her habits. Instead, this habituated appliance is enhanced with technology to make it easier to engage with technology and interact with family.

Smart Homes
The messaging kettle falls under the increasingly popular smart home systems that are geared at providing convenience and communication of objects in a house. As QUT researchers suggest, smart homes are framed as providing an assistive environment, making the lives of humans easier. As such, smart home systems are frequently used to assist elderly in their own homes, and help them to live independently.

As wonderful as this sounds, QUT researchers noted that this comes with some important concerns. Many smart home technologies for elderly are geared at monitoring under the guise of safety. These technologies position ageing people as a monitored subject, using sensors to track their every move or measuring power usage that tell what this person is doing. This data is then communicated to for example a family member to ensure the elderly person is safe and checked on.

But this has the result that instead of a safe and smart home, a house becomes an all-round surveillance system. Clearly, this comes with many privacy and ethical concerns, and does not necessarily address the needs of the elderly user.

Take for example Mary. Her daughter Lenore is worried that her mother might fall down the stairs and get hurt, so she would like to know if Mary is safe. Mary agrees, but she does not feel comfortable with Lenore tracking her every move. After all, she is a grown woman who has been living on her own just fine for many years.

Like QUT researchers argue, we should not focus our smart homes for elderly on monitoring. Instead, we should use technology to empower people. Technology should be used to amplify what is already there, and to inspire and engage users. We should foster the independence of people yet strengthen their connectedness, treating them as equals.

Conpago: Bringing Families Together by Changing the Way We Connect

Connected Homes
At Conpago, we have been working together closely with QUT and the researchers who worked on the messaging kettle. Based on these ideas, we take habituated objects, common objects in a home that people use on a daily basis, and make them smart. This means that people do not have to learn new technologies, lowering the threshold to use a new device.

We do recognize the value of monitoring the health and wellbeing of an elderly person to make sure they are ok, but we do so through passive monitoring. This means that we do not actively track movements or energy use, but only give a warning when the system suspects something is wrong.

Mary can now simply make a cup of tea like she does everyday and immediately connect to her family. She can see photos from her granddaughter’s birthday party, send a voice message to her son, or video call her sister while they are both having a cup of tea. Mary’s daughter Lenore feels reassured knowing that her mother can easily contact her and that when something is really wrong, the Connected Homes system will give her a warning. And most importantly, Mary now feels safe, connected and independent in her own home.

Conpago. Bringing families together by changing the way we connect

Conpago Companion: a tablet specifically designed for elderly with a simplified interface

Brereton, M. (2013). Habituated objects: everyday tangibles that foster the independent living of an elderly woman. interactions, 20(4), 20–24.

Brereton, M., Soro, A., Vaisutis, K., & Roe, P. (2015, April). The messaging kettle: Prototyping connection over a distance between adult children and older parents. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 713–716). ACM.

Soro, A., Brereton, M., & Roe, P. (2016, June). Towards an analysis framework of technology habituation by older users. In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 1021–1033). ACM.

Soro, A., Brereton, M., & Roe, P. (2015). The Messaging Kettle: It’s IoTea time.