"Smart" carpet could allow nursing homes someday to watch their residents' every step. 

 

The carpet being developed at the University of Manchester in England currently can detect the weight and movement of people, furniture and other objects placed upon it by measuring the changes of light in its optical fibers. In the future, a flooring system could send an alarm to nurses if a patient fell, or it could collect long-term data on an elderly person's walking rhythm, providing early clues to movement disorders. 

 

"Being able to identify changes in people's walking patterns and gait in the natural environment, such as in a corridor in a nursing home, could really help us identify problems earlier on," Chris Todd, a University of Manchester researcher in nursing and psychology, said in a statement. 

 

Todd's colleague, engineer Patricia Scully, demonstrated small prototypes of the university's latest smart carpets at a conference about light-related technology on Sept. 4 in Durham, England.

 

Scully's carpet has a network of plastic optical fibers underneath its woolly surface. Light runs through the fibers continuously, while sensors at the edge of the carpet measure how much light exits from each fiber. When people walk along the carpet's surface, their weight bends the fibers, altering how much light the sensors receive.

 

As a way to monitor elderly people's health, a weight-sensing carpet could be less intrusive than other obvious solutions, such as filming nursing home rooms, Scully and her colleagues wrote in a paper they presented in 2011 at an engineering conference. Their fiber-optic method of measuring footsteps also would be less expensive than other sensors that researchers have proposed, they wrote. In 2011, they estimated that a 1-square-meter tile (11 square feet) of the smart carpet would cost $160 to manufacture.

 

The optic fibers in the carpet also could be altered to detect qualities other than weight. Scully and her colleagues proposed ways fiber optics could measure temperature, moisture or pH changes. Thus, the smart carpet's tech could go into hospital beds that monitor patients. 

 

"The carpet can gather a wide range of information about a person's condition, from biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids," Scully said in a statement.

 

Its low cost also means it could go into a remodeling project in a home, she said. "The carpet can be retrofitted at low cost to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers' needs evolve," she said. 

 

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