CHAMPAIGN — Walk into the living commons of the McKechnie LIFE home and you’ll find the pad occupied by several domestic, sociable robots.
There’s Stretch, a 51-pound contraption with a prehensile grabber that can slide around the living room floor, picking up objects or even opening cabinets with the direction of a video game controller.
Jibo the Social Robot may swivel its head at you with a lifelike curiosity, dilating its central eye. Rub its head and it’ll purr.
Misty II will issue a verbal welcome to guests who cross the doormat. Students are currently programming the robot, which has facial recognition technology, to be able to carry a conversation and issue health-care reminders, researchers said.
It’s not the set of a near-future sci-fi movie, nor an attempted Jetsons remake. The McKechnie Family LIFE Home is an on-campus UI research site for home life, and a testing ground for smart technologies meant to make domestic functions easier.
“My research focus is on aging, but the LIFE home in general is meant to be for anybody living in the home environment — older adults, people with families, people with health-care conditions, anyone maintaining physical health and wellness,” said its director, University of Illinois Professor Wendy Rogers.
“LIFE” stands for “Living in Interactive Future Environments,” which Rogers contends is the facility’s unique sell.
“You can simulate a home environment, people can be interacting with technologies in an actual home space,” Rogers said. “If you’re studying something in a lab, it’s a different experience.”
Student and faculty researchers have already begun testing the home technologies’ uses. Next semester, they’ll start bringing in live participants.
“One of my students had Jibo living in her apartment for a couple of months, and many months later we took Jibo out of the box, and she came in and it said, ‘Hi, Megan,’” Rogers said. “It remembered her.”
All the tech has been brought to market previously. Stretch is a product of the company Hello Robot, with offices in Atlanta and Martinez, Calif. Jibo started as a crowdfunding tech through Indiegogo that was recently revived by the company NTT Disruption.
And it’s not just robots, either. Some tech is subtler, like the kitchen’s smart surfaces and appliances. A command to Amazon’s Alexa can adjust the oven to the right temperature and setting.
“We wanted to provide smart assistance for people who had cognitive issues from brain injuries. We talked to these people and tried to understand what issues they face with cooking,” said the LIFE Home’s assistant director for research, Harshal Mahajan.
“One of the common fears is they can’t remember if they’ve turned an appliance off or not.”
Occupants of the LIFE Home can access its smart appliances from a mobile phone and remotely turn them on and off.
The fridge, when closed, displays a video stream of its interior — you can see all the ingredients before opening the doors. The touchscreen on its surface keeps a digital record of the food and drink inside of it — apps can even create shopping lists or recipes based on the ingredients inside.
The practical technology and research potential has thoroughly impressed the building’s namesakes: Jim and Karen McKechnie, both Class of 1970 UI grads and prominent health sciences donors to their alma mater.
The couple gave $1 million to help bring the LIFE Home alive.
“The concept of enabling people to live more independently and more productively as they become older and lose some of their capabilities is, I think, the nicest thing about it,” said Jim McKechnie, an orthopedic surgeon.
He graduated from the UI with a degree in chemistry and went to Northwestern for medical school.
Karen, who graduated from the school’s former College of Physical Education (called the College of Applied Health Sciences since 2006), enjoyed some of the home’s side rooms, too.
“We knew the concept was to be like a real house, so that they can do research on different projects within it and be able to use it as a teaching facility, and I’d say it was a very exciting pitch,” Karen said.
Adjacent to the main living area and kitchen is an observation space with a one-way window that researchers can use to accurately assess how occupants interact with technologies in a home-like environment.
Live studies are already lined up for next semester. In one research endeavor, around 70 participants will be going through the LIFE Home five days a week, taking part in a series of games designed to measure cognitive well-being, all led by a virtual voice assistant.
One angle researchers want to explore, Rogers said, is how to properly introduce smart technologies into the home environment while understanding privacy and security concerns around tech, especially for older adults.
“The key for any technology introduction is making sure people understand why it might be useful to them and providing instructional support on how to use it,” she said. “Too often we get these technologies and we don’t know how to use it, and they’re not marketed to older adults so they don’t think that’s for them.”
With the project still in its infancy — the formal dedication happened just two months ago — there’s plenty in store for the LIFE Home.
Researchers from all backgrounds are welcome.
“What I would like to see is the LIFE Home be broadly used across disciplines, to support social engagement, healthy living, independence for people with disabilities, support for older adults — the whole range of what people want to do in their homes,” Rogers said.