In graying Japan, more than one-third of households have members older than 65, and 4.8 million households are composed of elderly couples. An additional 3.4 million people live alone, according to Ministry of Health Welfare and Labor figures for 2002, the latest ones available.
Increasingly, solitary lives give way to solitary deaths. The nation was alarmed to find that after the great Kobe earthquake in 1995, hundreds of people who lost their families, jobs and houses later died alone in temporary housing. In Tokyo in the past 10 years, the number of unattended deaths among the elderly doubled, reaching nearly 2,000 in 2003, the Tokyo Medical Examiner’s Office reported.
This being Japan, the solution is a gadget called an iPot (not to be confused with an iPod). The 83 year old widowner, Kijima, has one:
His electric kettle, an “i-pot” (for information pot), not only boils water for his instant miso soup and green tea but it also records the times he pushes a button and dispenses the water. A wireless communication device at the bottom of the i-pot sends a signal to a server. Members of the service can see recent records of i-pot usage on a Web site. In addition, twice a day the server e-mails the most recent three usage times to a designated recipient.
For Kijima, that recipient is neighbor Tadahiro Murayama. “Once, I didn’t use the pot for a day, and I got a phone call from Mr. Murayama,” Kijima said. The i-pot, he said, helps him feel he’s not alone.
But wouldn’t it be better if his kettle actually spoke to him? No need to fear. MIT’s Media Lab has just the thing. A new kitchen gadget called Blendie.
Blendie is an interactive, sensitive, intelligent, voice controlled blender with a mind of its own. Materials are a 1950’s Osterizer blender altered with custom made hardware and software for sound analysis and motor control.
People induce the blender to spin by sounding the sounds of its motor in action. A person may growl low pitch blender-like sounds to get it to spin slow (Blendie 2000 pitch and power matches the person) and the person can growl blender-style at higher pitches to speed up Blendie 2000. The experience for the participant is to speak the language of the machine and thus to more deeply understand and connect with the machine. The action may also bring about personal revelations in the participant, because in sounding with the blender one is likely to perform gesture and sound expressions not previously accessed which may open up hidden emotions or thoughts or feelings. The participant empathizes with Blendie 2000 and in this new approach to a domestic appliance fosters a more conscious and personally meaningful and responsible relationship with machines. And it is fun.
It is fun. If you don’t believe them, watch the movie.
Language Log’s Mark Liberman has more on Blendie and the concept of “Machine Therapy.”
UPDATE: Engadget seems to have found a picture of the i-pot.