Sensors are Safer

Why having a wearable PERS device actually makes older adults less safe

Last October, my 84 year old grandmother fell twice in her state-of-the-art Continuing Care Retirement Community. She lived in the independent living section of the community, where she had her own apartment that was fitted with an emergency button on the wall and a necklace pendant she was supposed to wear at all times. The first time she fell, the pendant was where she had last left it–in the drawer of her bedside table, nowhere near where she was. She crawled across the floor back to her bedroom and was able to get it out of the drawer and press the button. Help came and they got her back on her feet. In order to feel more safe, she attached the pendant to her walker. Sadly, she fell again that afternoon and suffered a fractured hip that left her unable to reach up and press the button on the pendant hanging from her walker. They found her still struggling a few hours later, and got an ambulance to rush her to the hospital where she had to undergo emergency surgery.

She had experienced first hand the terror that comes from falling without her emergency wearable on her person, and yet in that same day still refused to actually wear the device. This tells us all we need to know about how poor wearable solutions are in keeping older adults safe.

Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) make people less safe. It is counterintuitive, but for the millions of people who have had loved ones fall while owning one, this will ring true. The older adults who have a necklace or wristwatch style PERS device get a false sense of confidence, believing that just by owning one of the devices they will be looked after in the event of an emergency. These PERS wearables are only helpful if always worn, and even then, only if the emergency event leaves them capable of pressing the help button.

Instead of forcing older adults to mold their lives around a wearable PERS device, we believe we should build a service around their lives. Technology should support a person’s way of life, not alter it. Wireless, contactless sensors are clearly the direction the market is moving, and we’ve seen a few companies popping up that promise the ability to wirelessly look after older adults in their homes.

Technology should support a person’s way of life, not alter it.

Why has the adoption been slow and painful? Existing solutions suffer from a few key issues; they require many devices throughout the home, each of which can break and increases the overall complexity of the system. They require a painful setup process that can involve grappling with finicky bluetooth systems or having it professionally installed, making the economic viability of their solution hard. There are also some camera based solutions, but with most falls occurring in the bathroom where a camera can not go and the general privacy invasive nature of cameras, this is a nonstarter.

We’ve spent the last two and a half years developing a general purpose solution that works in real homes without the use of cameras or wearables, that only requires a single device in small homes (easy-to-install satellite devices coming later), and can be self-installed by anyone with a smartphone.

As a company that is being trusted to be inside people’s homes, privacy is at the core of how we’ve designed our system.

This isn’t sci-fi, just cutting edge deep technology. We use a system very similar to what is used in self driving cars–we’ve just miniaturized and modified it to make it suitable for the home environment. Here’s how it works: we send out radio waves similar in nature to Wi-Fi that are able to go through walls, and we listen to the reflections of these waves coming back to our device. With enough reflections, over time, we get back a pattern of energy representing movement somewhere in the home. A moving human body will reflect these waves in a way that is distinguishable from other objects like a static wall or a dog. Matching these patterns against our highly trained machine learning algorithms, we can detect where a person is and what they are doing. We’ve dubbed this technology Totemic T-Fi™.

As a company that is being trusted to be inside people’s homes, privacy is at the core of how we’ve designed Guardian. All of this sensing and inference happens on the device itself, and the signals from our sensors are only understandable by computers, not the human eye. The only thing that leaves the device is a summary output of what an event was and where it occurred, and the older adult can choose with whom and when they share any information.

At Totemic we are solving deep technology problems that fulfill a core human need and have meaningful impact on real human lives; enabling every older adult to live independently for their entire life while giving peace of mind to their loved ones. Stay tuned on our blog for more updates on our progress as we start to deploy these into real homes.

If any of this sounds like an exciting challenge to you, please reach out to me directly or apply at

Brad Eckert
COO, Co-founder