The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.1
The COACH (Cognitive Orthosis for Assisting with Activities in the Home) is an intelligent environment prototype meant to assist people with dementia in completing daily tasks, such as hand washing. The system uses a variety of components to track and prompt an individual who may have difficulty remembering the steps involved in a particular activity.
The COACH is intended to lessen dependence on human caregivers while offering people with dementia less invasive assistance, and only if they require it. Although the device is not an external method of memory storage, it provides cues that enhance users’ ability to use their memories.
It is also an example of ambient intelligence, which is a term used to describe responsive electronic environments that blend digital technologies into physical spaces of daily use. Issues with this type of environment may include privacy, the problem of surveillance, user trust, and over-reliance on technology. It may aid memory by storing information it has tracked about a user and using it to perform actions automatically, or prompting the user if they forget to do a task they would normally.
The hand washing assistant shown in the image above works by keeping track of the location of the user’s hands as well as the tasks the user has already performed. It then uses an AI algorithm to determine the current state of the task, whether the user requires a prompt, and if so, which prompt. For example, if the user begins by turning on the water but then forgets how to proceed, the system will prompt the user to use soap. Conversely, if the user beings by using soap but then forgets how to proceed, he or she will be prompted to turn on the water.
1 Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American 265(3) (1991): 66-75.