The New Scientist has an article about a research project that turns drinking glasses into communication devices:

Long-distance lovers can still drink together

Could glowing, Wi-Fi wine glasses let people in long-distance relationships feel more in touch with their other half?… [MIT Media Lab researchers] Jackie Lee and Hyemin Chung… have incorporated a variety of coloured LEDs, liquid sensors and wireless (GPRS or Wi-Fi) links into a pair of glass tumblers….

When either person picks up a glass, red LEDs on their partner’s glass glow gently. And when either puts the glass to their lips, sensors make white LEDs on the rim of the other glass glow brightly, so you can tell when your other half takes a sip. Following tests in separate labs, Lee says the wireless glasses really do “help people feel as if they are sharing a drinking experience together”.

The technology could also be used to check that hospital patients or elderly people are drinking enough water, Lee says.

There are a couple interesting things here. First, it draws on real-world social activity: it doesn’t require users to learn (or learn how to interpret) some new behavior, but piggybacks on very familiar ones. As the article notes, “communal drinking is an important social interaction that helps bind friendships and relationships.” This sort of social mimicry has long been part of GUI design– desktops and trash cans jumped from the real world to computer screens more than twenty years ago– but we can now start to think about getting rid of the middleman: eliminating the intermediate step of creating visual metaphors, and putting the electronics and interactivity directly in things.

The second thing is the last paragraph: that this system has medical monitoring or aging in place applications. Our work suggests that aging in place could be the first major market for smart home and smart devices: elders who want to continue to live independently in their own homes will be the early adopters for these systems. This is significant market for two reasons: first, there’s lots of evidence that retiring Boomers will be willing to spend money to stay healthy and maintain their independence, so potentially it’s a lucrative market; and second, the emotional and psychological value of these systems will be far greater in this market than elsewhere. Technology that lets your refrigerator talk to your local grocer is nice; but it doesn’t hold a candle technology that lets your 80 year-old mother live safely in the same house she’s been in for the last thirty years.

There’s a deeper connection between these two things. Ten years ago, as I understand it, the future of in-home elder care would have focused on automation: creating robot nurses, or other systems that do things for you. Today, the focus is more on systems that enable and encourage good behavior, and aim to keep elderly people active and connected to others. The first person who notices that you’ve been sleeping a lot more, and eating very little, shouldn’t necessarily be your doctor; it should be a sibling, or your son or daughter. More and more, these systems become tools for both gathering information about user patterns– making sure someone’s drinking enough– and communication channels linking elders with friends and family.