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Family dinners

Tradition goes high-tech as families disperse

February 20, 2007

Accenture's prototype of The Virtual Family Dinner system is essentially a highly automated and easy-to-use videoconferencing system with a large flat-screen television and two cameras focused on a kitchen table.Accenture's prototype of The Virtual Family Dinner system is essentially a highly automated and easy-to-use videoconferencing system with a large flat-screen television and two cameras focused on a kitchen table.

Mom lives in a small Ontario town. Her son lives with his family in Calgary, while her daughter has a teaching job in Halifax. Both worry that Mom — 80 years old and alone in her home — may not be taking proper care of herself and won't tell them if anything is wrong. Yet neither can manage frequent visits, and uprooting Mom from the house where she has spent most of her life, from her church friends and her bridge group, doesn't seem like the best idea.

It's a scenario that faces countless families as children move out and away. But soon, grown children like these might be able to sit down for dinner with Mom several nights a week.

In its Chicago technology labs, international consulting firm Accenture has set up a prototype called The Virtual Family Dinner. It's essentially a videoconferencing system — a screen similar to a large flat-screen television and two cameras focused on a kitchen table.

Because the device is meant for people who may not be familiar with such technology, Accenture researchers have made it highly automated. Built-in software monitors the images from the cameras, and when it detects that the kitchen's occupant is putting food on the table, the system goes through a list of contacts, trying to reach each in turn until it finds one who is available for a dinnertime chat.

That's the difference between this system and setting up a dinnertime videoconference using ordinary computers or laptops equipped with webcams. "Grandma doesn't have to do anything," Dadong Wan, the Accenture senior researcher who developed the prototype, said. While existing personal computing gear could do the job, he believes it requires a level of comfort with technology and willingness to make an effort that many people don't have.

So as Mom puts her dinner on the table in Ontario, the system might automatically check to see if her son in Calgary is available. If he hasn't arrived home from work yet, it would try her daughter in Halifax. Other family members could be on the list as well.

Rather than requiring those it calls to be in their kitchens, the system could alert them via telephone or cellphone.

Maintaining connections

Wan said there is a huge need for the growing number of separated families to be able to connect. The dinner table has always been a family gathering place, he said, so The Virtual Family Dinner is intended to "restore a moment of tradition."

Wan hopes an audiovisual connection with distant family members at mealtime will both help seniors living alone feel less isolated and encourage them to eat better. By doing those things, he said, it could reduce health-care costs.

It might just do that, experts in the field say, although further study will be needed to be sure of the benefits.

"This is actually really exciting," said Heather Keller, an associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph.

Many people focus on the socializing and bonding benefits that dinnertime gatherings have for families with young children. But studies have shown that eating with family has a positive impact on senior citizens' nutrition, health and state of mind as well, according to Keller.

"It has a lot to do with a person's feeling of who they are as a person and their connection to the world," she said.

And as for nutrition, "when you eat with family and friends, you tend to eat better," Keller said.

The old versus the new

What remains uncertain is whether sharing a meal via videoconference will have all the benefits of sharing one in the traditional way, Keller said.

Jane Bellman, manager of the Nutrition Resource Centre in Guelph, Ont., thinks the results are likely to be positive, although she knows of no statistics to support that view. Healthy eating is often an issue with seniors living alone, Bellman said, and the video link could also combat loneliness and help distant family members keep tabs on an elderly parent's health.

A possible disadvantage, she said, is that the system might become intrusive for either the older person or the other family members, and lead to feelings of guilt for relatives who aren't always available for virtual mealtime visits.

Privacy is an issue as well. Although the prototype conferencing system will try to contact family members automatically when a senior places food on the table, Wan said, the older person can turn it off if he or she doesn't want company.

The technology

Accenture's prototype is quite high-tech, Wan said, describing how it uses two cameras and a four-by-six-foot screen that turns into a transparent partition when not in use. However, Wan said, the same principle could work with a single camera and a screen the size of an ordinary television. Communication requires an ordinary broadband internet link, something that more than 50 per cent of Canadian homes have today.

Wan said that when mass produced, the units could cost just a few hundred dollars, bringing them within reach of the average Canadian household.

At first, he said, the system would probably require each family member to have one of the units, which would keep the technology simple. However, existing technology — such as personal computers equipped with webcams, television sets or even cellphones — might be used as well.

Accenture has no plans to build and sell the devices itself, but Wan said the company may transfer the prototype technology to clients interested in developing the idea. He estimates The Virtual Family Dinner could be a reality in two years or less if a partner decides to commercialize it.

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