Your connected home could one day save your life

Consider this scenario: Randall is an elderly man living alone. He's doing pretty well -- until one day he has a mild stroke. In the weeks that follow, he's not as active as usual, getting up later and not leaving the house. Motion detectors, a mattress sensor and a smart door lock in his home detect the change in his activity patterns. Randall's daughter gets a message prompted by her father's activity data in the cloud, checks in on him and takes him to the doctor. Once he's received treatment, Randall returns home, with marching orders to equip his home with additional sensors and cameras that can track his health and upload information to the cloud for his doctor to monitor.

It sounds pretty simple, right? The scenario above, proposed as part of the White House-backed SmartAmerica Challenge to jump-start large-scale innovation around connected devices, is already perfectly feasible. And while Randall's case may entail more elaborate setups, companies like Nonnatech and Lively already allow you to monitor those getting on in years. For anyone with elderly friends or family, such solutions provide a glimmer of hope for a future with fewer depressing nursing homes and live-in nurses.

According to Mark Walters, President of the Z-Wave Alliance and part of the team behind this "Closed Loop Healthcare" project, it's these types of use cases that bring the ever-nebulous term "Internet of Things" down to earth. When the gadgets in your home can help you get the care you need, everyone wins, right?

When your home can help you get the care you need, everyone wins, right?

Z-Wave, to back up a bit, is a communications protocol that powers smart devices such as home-security appliances and wireless lighting controls. It's not the only protocol smart gadgets use to interact -- there's ZigBee and Bluetooth, not to mention WiFi -- but considering that the tech is currently in more than 25 million devices, Z-Wave is an important voice in the conversation about the future Internet of Things. Oh, and by the way, the cool kids aren't calling it "IoT" these days -- CPS (Cyber Physical Systems) is where it's at for those in the know. Whatever you call it, though, the bottom line is that multiple devices are communicating to control an environment.

But back to the whole life-saving thing: The Randall example is just one of many ways connected technology could improve your life on a larger scale, if not save it. iControl, which makes the Piper camera-based home automation and security system that also happens to use the Z-Wave protocol, is working on more sophisticated monitoring solutions as well. Piper co-creater Russell Ure says such systems can be used to detect more subtle signs of decline in older people, for example.

"Having a system in the home that only your family can access will let you see signs that your parents are becoming old and listless, and track warning signs of something serious in the works," Ure said.

And there's no reason to think these use cases are limited to your elderly parents on the other side of the country -- they could theoretically work in outpatient depression treatment, among countless other scenarios.

Still, the question remains: When will all this become a reality, especially when most people don't have a single smart gadget in their homes?

Still, the question remains: When will all this become a reality, especially when most people don't have a single smart gadget in their homes? A report from Juniper Research predicts that smart home appliances will pass the 10-million mark in 2017, but that number represents growth in smart fridges and washing machines, not sophisticated health-monitoring systems. The SmartAmerica Challenge, backed by the federal technology agency NIST, aims to spur funding for these broader-scale projects by demonstrating both their benefits and their feasibility. Teams behind 20 different concepts will present their work at a summit this June, and Congress could begin drumming up cash soon after.

According to Ure, the ability to monitor and manage events like an older person falling is more than a few months away. "Over the next year or two," he says, ""there will be more technology that ties in the visual and sensor components." That smart lock is starting to look pretty quaint, isn't it?