Dr Jane Reeves is co-director of the University of Kent's Centre for Child Protection

Avatar could help care for elderly at home

An intelligent avatar which would detect if people are in pain and alert emergency services could help the elderly remain independent.

The avatar could appear as a figure on a television screen, a tablet computer or as a hologram, according to the university, which is taking a leading role in the project to support the UK's ageing population.

It could then be used to monitor heart rate and blood pressure, remind people to take medication and it would know if someone had fallen over or was in pain, alerting the doctor or the emergency services, a university spokesman said.

The avatar would be able to analyse the person's speech, movement and facial expression to detect their mood and respond accordingly and the system would not need computer literacy and would be no more challenging to operate than switching on a television, the spokesman said.

The project, known as Responsive InTeractive Advocate (RITA), is being headed by Kent's Centre for Child Protection and has won a share of £2.4m in funding from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). The RITA project is one of six aimed at developing new cost-effective ways of helping elderly people to continue to live comfortably and independently in their own homes.

Dr Jane Reeves, co-director of the Centre for Child Protection, said: "There is a major debate about how we provide care for vulnerable people across all age groups and this project is seeking to meet one of our biggest challenges, which is ensuring older adults can remain independent for as long as possible.

"Although this project is at an early stage, with a number of technical, moral and ethical issues to be addressed, the development of RITA in the form of a humanised avatar could revolutionise how an individual's personal, social emotional and intellectual needs are met in the future.

"RITA would exist as a digital champion, an advocate in the form of an avatar, providing a friendly interface between the individual, family, friends, professions and services."

Kent is working with the University of Portsmouth who will focus on developing the interactive avatar, while Winchester-based Affective State will work on sensing and forecasting emotional well-being and Glasgow-based We Are Snook will focus on the user experience design.

Iain Gray, chief executive of the TSB, said: "This is an expanding market and we need to radically rethink our approach to long-term care provision, providing options that will enable people to live with more dignity and autonomy.

"We focus innovation activity on areas where we think it can make the biggest difference. Late life care is often regarded as an economic liability but it can actually be an engine for economic growth."

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