Study focuses on benefits of Internet, other new technology for military families
January 13, 2005
Boston University is leading a study to plug the Great American Military Household into ... well, itself. And into school and the doctor, too.
The university recently announced the Technologically Connected Home Project, paid for through grants from the Army and Nielsen Media Research. The three-year program will study 500 military families to see whether using things like the Internet as a low-cost, long-distance telephone line catch on with families often separated.
“One of the realities of the military family is it’s a family in transition, there’s a move to and from a base,” said John Henderson, director of the Boston University Institute for Leading in a Dynamic Economy. “There’s a changing of careers and a changing of venues relative to a career. Military families are really families in motion.”
A child who moves to a new school could connect with the old to smooth transition. A family at a remote base could access doctors via video. And using Voice over Internet Protocol voice communication, a soldier-parent serving far away could keep in touch without paying long-distance fees.
“We kind of think of the home as a nucleus of an atom, and the family members are spinning around it,” Henderson said. “They’re the electrons.”
The idea would be to keep those electrons in touch, no matter how far from home they fly.
“Make life better for soldier families and you can make better soldiers,” said William Armbruster, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for privatization and partnerships, in a prepared statement. “Army readiness is inextricably linked to the well-being of the whole family. ... When deployed, soldiers need to know that their families are safe, housed, and have access to medical care, community services, and educational opportunities. If technology in the home can make that all possible, then everyone wins and the odds of soldier retention are multiplied greatly.”
Soldiers are both the subjects of the study and the end client. The study will cost about $1 million per year, with the Army paying for 25 percent of it and Nielsen picking up the bulk of the rest. Actus Lend Lease and the Picerne Real Estate Group will provide sites for the new homes. The study will begin with volunteers at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Meade, Md., though the program should expand to three other bases. There are no plans now to expand the study overseas, but Henderson said he couldn’t rule it out. The program is part of the Army’s Residential Communities Initiative, a push to rebuild 70,000 military homes in the next five years.
Harvard Medical School and the Army surgeon general are involved on the telemedicine side.
Nielsen believes the technology could have applications beyond the military.
“This is not making a new secret device or something, this is something the private sector can be very supportive of,” said Robert Luff, chief technology officer at Nielsen Media Research. One of the technologies Nielsen is excited about is motes, tiny devices that measure movement or temperature or virtually anything.
“Imagine something like a stack of three or four nickels, and in that there’s a battery like a hearing aid battery and a chip,” Luff said.
They’re small and don’t draw much attention to themselves, which helps researchers not influence the behavior of those being studied. They could help researchers tell whether members of a family eat dinner together or watch television or simply go out to eat.
Other smart devices could be used for maintenance purposes.
“Examples would be RFID tags on appliances,” said Dennis O’Connor, a project spokesman, referring to radio frequency identification technologies. “If they need service or maintenance, they would automatically contact a distributor or someone.”
But such an electric eye could spook some, as the researchers are well aware. The data that the home project collects will not go directly to the Army or companies, but to researchers who will analyze it. The analysis is what the military and companies finally receive.
“We are the mechanism that ensures the privacy of the family,” Henderson said. “Boston University researchers are the only ones who have access to the data.”