Bathrooms become smarter with touch screens

In just a few years if you forget to brush your teeth, you may get a gentle reminder -- from your bathroom mirror.

In just a few years if you forget to brush your teeth, you may get a gentle reminder -- from your bathroom mirror.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems are for the first time at the Cebit IT trade show this week displaying a touchscreen mirror that can remind people to take their medicine, wash their hands or brush their teeth.

The hardware behind Fraunhofer's electronic bathroom isn't new, and the custom software just runs on a regular PC, said Gudrun Stockmanns, who works in Fraunhofer in Duisburg, Germany.

But developers hope that the system will help elderly people with conditions such as dementia to live longer independently.

The half-transparent mirror displays icons without words illustrating certain actions: For washing dentures, there's a glass with a set of teeth in it. Others include a scale icon, two hands with a towel to remind someone to dry off and a face and hand icon with a dab of lotion on it.

When the medicine cabinet is opened, a large icon with a pill in the middle of the mirror shows how many pills the person should take. Stockmanns said Fraunhofer envisions linking the mirror with a care provider, which could remotely monitor if a patient is accomplishing basic hygiene tasks.

Other icons control basic bathroom features. An icon with a red water droplet and a "+" will increase the water temperature of the tap, while the blue water droplet decreases it. The gears symbol can be used to raise the entire sink basin and toilet, a feature that is enabled in Fraunhofer's prototype.

The system holds a lot of potential for customization. If family members wear RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, the bathroom would know that person's preferences and display the appropriate icons.

"We want the system to learn your routine," Stockmanns said. "When you go in the bathroom, it registers how you use it."

The system could even do that as soon as a person leaves their bed. The software would learn over time that, for example, John usually comes in from the third bedroom around 7:30 a.m. to bathe. If someone isn't following their normal routine, the software would just skip a reminder and move onto the next one, Stockmanns said.

While the system right now is geared more toward the elderly, it could offer much for younger people. Fraunhofer's implementation at Cebit has an icon for music, and it could be customized to show a person's calendar for the day or even video programs.

"We are in several research projects, and now it's our aim to build prototypes so we can test it with real people," Stockmanns said.

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