Big Brother is watching granny... and her fridge

Those of you ancient enough to remember Tomorrow's World, the BBC's original science and technology TV spot, will be familiar with homes of the future.

In the seventies the programme's presenters promised us that we'd all be living in fully-automated homes, run by robot butlers by the year 2000, eating space food prepared by a computer, and flying to work at our paper-free offices using our own personal jetpacks. They lied.

Now boffins from the University of Portsmouth reckon that smart houses are getting a little bit closer, and we'll soon be able to keep an eye on what is going on at home from afar whilst, more worryingly, the house keeps an eye on us (or our elderly relatives).

Dr Jim Briggs, who specialises in telemedicine, is working with technology outfit Passivsystems to develop new sensors which can monitor the health and well-being of residents (should that be inmates) and notify whoever is doing the watching exactly what is going on.

And the boffins have even invented a creepy new word to make the technology seem just a tiny bit less intrusive: 'Telecaring'.

With a rapidly-ageing population and more elderly people wanting to live more independent lives in their own homes, the boffins reckon our oldies would rather be watched by a computer 24 hours a day than be visited by their feckless offspring.

"The elderly population is growing and there is a need to care for increasing numbers with less money," says Briggs. "Social services are bitterly aware that they are having to do more and more with fewer resources. This technology will appeal to carers who want the reassurance of being able to log on to a secure site and check the elderly person’s daily routine is unchanged"

Apparently the newly developed software algorithms are smart enough to tell the difference between granny sitting down to have forty winks and dropping dead in her armchair.

"It is incredibly reassuring for family members to see an elderly relative is safe and well," added Briggs. "This isn’t about installing CCTV cameras in every room; it’s about giving relatives and carers a graphic representation of what is going on – that Mum got out of bed at 8am and boiled the kettle at 8.30am like she does every day. But we want the sensors to be capable of not necessarily ringing alarm bells if Mum happens to feel like a lie in one day or decides to drink juice instead of tea."

The new sensors will also be able tell when the fridge needs filling up, and monitor the taking of medicines.

Dr Briggs foresees two main customers for the new technology – statutory carers including councils; and those choosing telecare in their own homes or choosing residential homes with the technology installed.