ATU451 – Smart Home Technology with Ben Jacobs

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show Notes:
Ben Jacobs – Accommodations Specialist with Tools for Life**
**Since the recording of this podcast, Ben has moved on from his position at Georgia Tech and now owns his own business, RebelTech Consulting, where he offers his expertise in accessible technology and provides consulting, training, customization and installation of smart home technology. To contact Ben directly please email him at ben.jacobs@rebel-tech.org.
Tools for Life Website: www.gatfl.org
Santa’s Little Hackers Story: http://bit.ly/2SuQGXF
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——————Transcript Starts Here————————–
Ben Jacobs:
Hi is this is Ben Jacobs and I’m the accommodation specialist of Tools for Life, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello, and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the Indata project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 451 of Assistive Technology Update, it’s scheduled to be released on January 17th, 2020. On today’s show we’re very excited to have Ben Jacobs from Tools for Life on. He’s going to talk about just smart home technologies and how those can help individuals with disabilities and our aging population. And, all the different ways that these kinds of off-the-shelf accommodations can really help folks with aids of daily living and other things.

Josh Anderson:
Ben’s from Tools for Life, and we’ve had Liz and Carolyn on from Tools for Life at Georgia Tech here before, talking about their TechSAge initiative. He will talk a little bit about that as well, just to keep that kind of front of mind. We also have a really great story about Santas, little hackers, about a group getting together and modifying and accommodating toys so that individuals with disabilities can still get something under the tree and be able to access those toys just like anyone else. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Don’t forget you can find our podcast anywhere that you find your podcast including now on Spotify. So again, we finally made it to the big times, I guess, now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
Here we are in mid-January and I’m looking very forward to attending the ATIA conference in Orlando later in the month, not just for the warmer weather, but also to get to meet folks in the field. If you happen to be attending ATIA, I will be presenting on Saturday morning on AT in the workplace, and I’ll also be looking for new interviews. So, if you happen to be at ATIA at the end of the month, definitely try to find me.

Josh Anderson:
We’ve already been through Christmas and through new year’s, but I found a really great story over at thedenverchannel.com. This story’s written by Jason Gruenauer and it’s titled Santa’s Little Hackers spread holiday cheer to hundreds through accessible toys. Story takes place in Broomfield, Colorado. It talks about an organization called Santa’s Little Hackers that was started by a Deanna and Steve Watson. What these folks do is they give volunteers that adapt toys for individuals with disabilities to get for Christmas.

Josh Anderson:
At the time of this story, there were actually 400 volunteers participating in this Santa’s Little Hackers event and actually says, this is the sixth year that they’ve been adapting toys for children and adults with disabilities. So if you really think about some of the toys, you have to have some pretty fine motor to turn on a switch, to maybe press a button, or kind of manipulate. What they do is they go in, and these folks actually work with those toys in order to make it to where you can play with them independently. So, super cool. I know I’ve seen some definitely, some different kind of switch button, maybe push button controlled devices and toys, but it’s very cool that they’re actually able to modify these kind of as a group. Of course, many of the folks that we talk to here on the show, they were inspired as their son Max, as it says here in this story had a disability and wasn’t able to move his hands in a way that could activate the toys.

Josh Anderson:
So just some simple modifications, made a larger button, or some other ways that he could do this. They saw this need and figured, “Hey, if Max needs these, then a lot of other individuals probably do as well. The story itself talks about some different kinds of toys that they’ve adapted. Some other things like that, as well as there are some links, so if you’d ever want to go donate to such an organization, you always can. It does say that they shipped out close to 1500 toys for the Christmas season that just passed. Very awesome that they’re taking this upon themselves, getting these great volunteers in order to make sure that every individual has a Merry Christmas and toys that work for them.

Josh Anderson:
Smart home technology has become a booming business, major tech firms like Amazon, Google and Apple are investing heavily in this emerging technology. There’s whole aisles at home improvement stores and big box retailers dedicated to everything from light bulbs and doorbells to cameras and vacuums, all internet connected to make our lives easier. While these off-the-shelf consumer goods can help to make able bodied individuals lives easier. They also have a major impact on the lives and independence of individuals with disabilities and the aging community. Our guest today is Ben Jacobs from Tools for Life. He’s here to tell us how smart home technology can be a major help to these populations. Ben, welcome to the show.

Ben Jacobs:
Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. We’re really excited to talk about this because, as I said, I can’t walk through my Home Depot without an entire aisle of all these things. Whereas, used to be, it was such a specialized kind of niche market to find anything like this. But before we talk about that, can you start off by telling our listeners just a little bit about yourself?

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah. My name is Ben Jacobs, I’m the accommodation specialists with Tools for Life. Pretty much my role at Tools for Life is to be the eyes and ears of the team when it comes to cutting edge and emerging technologies and figuring out how they can be leveraged by people with disabilities to maintain, or regain their independence.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We actually talked to Carolyn and Liz from Tools for Life on earlier shows about a program that you guys are working on. Before we really get into the smart home technology, could you remind our listeners about the TechSAge research and education program that you all are a part of?

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. So TechSAge is a program that we’re working on, where we are looking at identifying, creating solutions for people that are aging with a disability and they encounter a secondary disability. For example, someone who’s blind and has been blind for a long time and as they get older, they wind up being deaf, or hard of hearing.

Josh Anderson:
I can’t wait to just hear what all comes out of that from you guys as that kind of continues on. So Ben to get started, let’s just start off with the basics. What is smart home technology?

Ben Jacobs:
Smart home technology is various devices that you can control using either an app, using your voice, or a switch. Yeah. It’s pretty much anything in your home that you’re able to either set up a schedule for, or to control through your phone. That’s pretty much smart home technology really in a nutshell.

Josh Anderson:
So what are some of the different items that are available?

Ben Jacobs:
Like you said at the beginning of the show, there are all sorts of items that are available, and there are new ones that are coming out all the time. Light bulbs, light switches, there’s smart plugs where you can plug a dumb device into it and make it smart. There’s thermostats, washers and dryers, crockpots, coffee makers, you name it. They’re trying to make it smart, and of course, by making it smart, they’re actually making it accessible for many people.

Josh Anderson:
So let’s expand on that. How can these kind of items help the aging and disability communities?

Ben Jacobs:
Right, of course people as they get older, they want to be able to stay at home. They want to be able to be independent and continue living their life as they always have their whole lives. Smart home technology can really allow that to happen. A lot of times, one example I like to bring up is smart lights. A lot of us take for granted being able to go over and flip a light switch, but for many people, they go their whole lives. They’re never able to physically do that with something like a smart light bulb and a smart speaker, like an Amazon Echo or Google home, you can open up a whole new world of independence for someone. Like I said, that hasn’t been able to physically access those devices before. Now it’s as simple as saying Echo turn on the closet.

Josh Anderson:
It is amazing, like you said, how that can open up doors for individuals who have never been able to do that, always had to rely on someone else to help them. I remember back in the day, you could make a home accessible, but you had to have an electrician and pretty much a structural engineer to almost rebuild an entire house. Whereas now you plug in a few things, connect them to the internet, and you’re ready to go.

Ben Jacobs:
We absolutely live in an amazing time right now where this technology continues to evolve. It continues to expand, becomes more user friendly, more affordable, and easier to access. It’s really great.

Josh Anderson:
I want to talk about some more of the kind of technology, but before I really get into that, what do you think are some really important considerations people should think about if they’re trying to set up this kind of system for an individual?

Ben Jacobs:
There are some things to consider. Number one, I think most people should try to prioritize and figure out how they want to start. A lot of times, people are really excited about smart home technologies after I demonstrate it to them and tell them about everything that it can do. There’s this want to just get everything all at once and make the whole home smart right away. But of course that can be pretty difficult to do financially. That can be a lot to invest right away, then on top of that, to be able to remember all of the commands for all the devices you just brought, it can make it difficult.

Ben Jacobs:
I generally suggest that people start out small getting a smart speaker of their choice, and then maybe a light bulb to start out with, just to dip your toe in the water and get used to the idea of controlling devices in your home using your phone, or using your voice. I find that building from that small success, you can then start getting other devices, whether it’s a smart lock for your front door, or a smart plug for your crockpot in the kitchen. By building up slowly, you’re able to not break the bank, but at the same time slowly learn all of the different devices and allows them to become habit.

Josh Anderson:
I think that’s a good idea. I mean, especially when you have to name everything at the same time, trying to remember the names of 20 things at once is pretty tough. Whereas, if you just have one or two to start with and then build from that, it’s much easier to remember which ones are which and how to use those.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. Kind of piggybacking on that same idea of remembering device names. One of the great features that I wanted to mention real quick with a lot of smart speakers is the ability to create custom voice commands. So rather than having to remember every device name, you can actually create a phrase that you would naturally say. For example, here in the office I have a table fan and I could turn it on by saying, turn on the fan, but I can also turn it on by saying it’s too hot in here, and it’ll turn on the fan. That’s a really great feature where again, you can program multiple voice commands so that you don’t have to remember the exact syntax, or the exact command, or the exact device name in order to get what you want done in your home.

Josh Anderson:
Well, that’s also great for people, individuals with disabilities because there might be some words that are much easier for them to say, or some folks I’ve worked with may have a very small vocabulary. If you could just name it something that you are able to say, it would make it a whole lot easier to be able to access it and to turn on the lights, or do all the other features that you might need.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, of course, absolutely. I mean, you could make it a single word command. It doesn’t even have to really relate to which device it is, as long as you remember the word. I can say abracadabra and that can turn on the lights in my kitchen, and raise the blinds, and do several different things, not controlling, just one device, but maybe many devices that are from that one word command.

Josh Anderson:
Ben, as we’re talking about these things and I know it really helps out with the independence of the individual. Do you also see some folks using it maybe for, I don’t know how to the best way to word it, maybe peace of mind. My parents are aging, other people’s parents are aging and want to live in their homes more, do you see people using it to kind of check in on folks and make sure that they’re okay?

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. One feature that a lot of the smart speakers have is the ability to make phone calls using your voice without having to have a cell phone plan or anything like that. You can just program in your contacts and just say, “Call mom.” It’ll keep you socially connected and be able to check up on the people you care about. Another great feature on the Amazon Echo devices, specifically the Amazon Echo Show, there’s a feature called Drop In. So, the Echo Show is actually a smart display, so you’re getting your information, not only audibly, but also visually on the screen. That’s included in the Echo Show. On top of that, you have a video camera that’s built into it. So, if you and your loved one that you want to check in on both have Echo Shows, you can opt into a feature called Drop In, which will allow you to just check up on your family member anytime you wanted to. They don’t even have to necessarily answer the video call. You can just check in whenever you want.

Josh Anderson:
That’s so great, every time I see it, or even used something like that, I always just feel like I am actually in the future, just because I can remember the movies in the eighties and stuff and thinking the video phone was the coolest thing ever. It’ll never probably get here and then holy moly, there it is, and I can control it by my voice. It kind of, just playing right off of that to, talk about some of the great security features for individuals. I mean, like being able to know who’s at the door and that kind of stuff. What are some of those that are available?

Ben Jacobs:
Personal security at home is definitely something that can be managed through smart home devices. If you picture someone living independently at home, they don’t have physical access to the locks on their doors. They had several different solutions that were available to them before smart home technology, but none of them were very secure. For example, perhaps someone’s expecting a friend to come by and visit. You could make sure that your friend has a key to your house so that they can let themselves in. But of course you don’t want everyone that you know, that might stop by, to have a key that they can just let themselves in whenever they want.

Josh Anderson:
True.

Ben Jacobs:
Another solution, that’s very popular is to leave a key in a hidden spot outside the door and let your friend know where that key is. But unfortunately all it takes is one person watching your friend retrieve that key and then they know where that is, and they can let themselves in whenever they want. A third option, which is pretty popular in the disability community. But, I really don’t feel like should be an option at all, is to just leave the door unlocked. Of course, like I said, there are solutions that are available, but they’re not very safe, or secure.

Ben Jacobs:
Now, we recommend that people get a video doorbell, whether it’s a Ring video doorbell, or a Nest video doorbell, and a smart lock on their front door. So when someone comes by and knocks on the door, or rings the doorbell, you can say to your Echo Show, “Show me the front door.” And you could see if it’s your buddy, you want to let them in. At that point you can just say, “Unlock the door.” And the door unlocks itself, and then their friend can let themselves in. When the friend leaves, they can just close the door and then you can say, “Lock the door,” and you’re safe and secure again.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. I know a lot of those other measures were used as a service provider. I know there’s many times like, “Oh, you’ll be by, at a certain time, I’ll make sure the front door is unlocked, just come on in.” It’s always like, well, that’s great for me, but what about the person who just knocks on the door and finds it unlocked, so you unfortunately have to worry about that. But, it’s amazing how much independence that can open up and just not having to rely on someone else to open the door for you, or unlock the door and do those kinds of things.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely.

Josh Anderson:
Ben, what are some other ways that smart homes can help individuals with disabilities in our aging population?

Ben Jacobs:
I mean, so there are many different ways that smart home technologies can really benefit people. About two years ago, I met with someone who had been diagnosed with ALS and they were interested in what they could do to maintain their independence at home. They came in with their wife, who is taking notes furiously, on everything. They really didn’t know about smart home technology and what it meant for accessibility and independence. They see the commercials and they see that, “Oh, that makes life easier for someone, or a little more convenient. But, I don’t really understand how it can help someone with a disability.” So I sat down and talked with them for about an hour, hour and a half.

Ben Jacobs:
Then, two years later, just a couple of weeks ago, this person reached out to me again and wanted us to come out to his house to see where he went with it. All of his lights are now voice activated. He has blinds on his windows that he can control using his voice, even his toilet is controllable via his voice, he can raise and lower the seat. He has a bidet that he uses, he has a towel warmer that he uses, using his voice. He actually, also made it so that he can control his adjustable bed using his voice so that he can be comfortable at night whenever he’s in bed. Yeah.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. Just think about how much independence that is. I mean, the things they used to have to rely on someone else to have, and I did not know that you could voice control your towel warmer and your toilet, that’s kind of life changing.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, really. It’s really great and amazing to see that, so much is coming out so quickly. I had the opportunity to attend the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas the past couple of years. Just seeing all of the different technologies that are coming out, that they’re working on. If I had to sum up the show in just a few words, it would be put Alexa and the Google Assistant in all of the things. If you can think of it, they were trying to make it so that we’d be able to control it using your voice.

Josh Anderson:
Ben, to expand on that, what are some ways that you see smart homes being used in the future, or what are some things that you think are coming down the pipeline that might be available in the future, or what’s something you’d love to see be available in the future? That’s a lot of questions all at once. I’m sorry.

Ben Jacobs:
That’s okay. So some things to look for in the future, smart faucets. Being able to say, “Echo pour one liter of water,” and having it pour out exactly one liter of water. That could be important also in making sure that you can track your water intake throughout the day and ensure that you’re staying properly hydrated throughout the day. Get it to pour you a cup of water and it’ll track, actually, how much water has been poured that day. There’s showers that are going to be voice controlled, bath tubs as well. You can just say, “Draw me a bath,” and you can have previously configured what temperature you like that to be at, and as soon as you say that, it’ll draw the bath and just stop when the tub is full. Same thing with the shower, you can program your temperature that you prefer in the shower, and just say, “Start the shower,” and go ahead and go in and get yourself cleaned up.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah. There’s just all sorts of great technologies. I’ve seen the smart speaker features built into bathroom mirrors as well. One thing that I would like to see is more along the lines of medication compliance, and being able to remind you when you’re at the mirror that you need to take your medication. Perhaps saying exactly what the medication and the dosage was, and all of that, and just helping make sure that people are taking the right amount at the right times.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, for sure. And the way that some of these are built, or at least some of the smart mirrors that I’ve seen, you could even show a picture of what the pill looks like, so that the individual knows exactly which one they’re supposed to take. If they need to take two, it could show too. That could be really helpful.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely.

Josh Anderson:
With talking about the baths and showers. I mean, some listeners are probably like, “Oh, that’ll be really convenient,” but I know I’ve worked with folks just due to their disability, they very little sensation, so they don’t know when it’s too hot until their skin’s already burned, or their body temperatures went down too much. That’d be great if it just automatically set that temperature for them and they didn’t even have to worry about that anymore.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. It, like you said, takes a lot of the worry out of it, a lot of the stress out of it, and just makes it easier for everyone.

Josh Anderson:
It does, and it really makes it to where individuals, whether getting older and having disabilities kind of come on with age, or just having disabilities that maybe are progressive or even just there. Be able to be more independent, be able to stay at home, and not have to have someone there to assist them as much, and just be able to do a lot more for themselves. Like you said, I think in the beginning, it’s a very exciting time. Entertainment’s in important for everyone, what are some different kind of entertainment components that can be used in smart home?

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. Entertainment is definitely important as well as staying connected and to the outside world. Right. Being able to watch the news, being able to control your TV, being able to control your radio, all of that’s very important. Of course, previously the solution that I would recommend involves to the Logitech Harmony Hub, which is an infrared emitter, it controls all of your devices that you would normally use over remote control for. Then, you could pair that with a smart speaker and be able to say, “Turn on the TV,” and have it turn on your TV, or soundbar, your cable box. Then I would also recommend that people utilize either a Fire Stick, or a Chrome Cast in order to be able to access apps on their TV, like Netflix, or YouTube, or Hulu.

Ben Jacobs:
Now, actually this past fall, Amazon released the Fire TV Cube, which takes all three of those devices, the smart speaker, the Logitech Harmony Hub, and the Fire Stick and wraps it into one box that is very easy to set up. You can just set your location and who your cable provider is, tell it what kind of TV you have, and what kind of cable box, what kind of sound bar. Then from there, it’s as easy as saying, “Turn on the TV,” the TV or soundbar, come on. Then you can say, “Watch CNN,” or “Watch Fox News, watch animal planet.” It’s all using your natural language. You don’t have to remember TV channels or anything like that.

Ben Jacobs:
Then on top of that, you have the Fire TV capabilities. So you can say things like, “Watch Stranger Things on Netflix,” and it’ll automatically pull up Netflix and start playing Stranger Things for you. You can even watch YouTube videos on it by saying like, “Play videos of puppies playing in the rain on YouTube.” It just brings up videos with puppies playing in the rain. So it’s really great so that without even having to press a button on a remote, or anything like that, you can have access to all of the different channels and all of the different entertainment apps that you could want.

Josh Anderson:
I’ve had someone on here talk about that a little bit before and just explained, if I’m in a wheelchair and I dropped the remote I used to be stuck watching whatever was on TV until someone came in to grab that remote. Now, by just using your voice, like you said, you can even look for it by show. You can look for it by genre even. If I want to see westerns, I can just say, “Show me westerns,” and it’ll come up with anything that you can watch. It just opens up a whole new world of independence, of entertainment, of communication, kind of everything.

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s just really wonderful to see.

Josh Anderson:
I can’t wait to really see what’s next. Ben, if our listeners would want to find out more about you, is there any place they can look to find out more information?

Ben Jacobs:
Yeah, absolutely. I would recommend that people check out Tools for Life’s website, www.gatfl.org.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We’ll put a link to that over in the show notes. Ben Jacobs has been our guest today. Ben, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking about smart homes and how they can help individuals in the aging and disability communities.

Ben Jacobs:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If you do, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124, or shoot us a note on Twitter at Indata project, or check us out on Facebook.

Josh Anderson:
Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at www.eastersealstech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the accessibility channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to accessibilitychannel.com. The views expressed by our guests are not necessarily that of this host, or the Indata project. This has been your Assistive Technology Update. I’m Josh Anderson with the Indata project at Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.