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For homebound seniors, smarter speakers

Boston-based LifePod's smart speaker doesn't wait to be spoken to.  Caregivers can program it to remind seniors to take their meds or to exercise.
Boston-based LifePod's smart speaker doesn't wait to be spoken to. Caregivers can program it to remind seniors to take their meds or to exercise.LifePod

Every day, Kathleen McVicar of Cotuit has a few simple questions for her 85-year-old mother in Virginia. How well did she sleep? Did she remember to eat breakfast, to take her meds, to check her voicemails?

McVicar could get the answers by making an endless series of phone calls throughout the day. Instead, she just checks her e-mail every morning. The previous day’s answers are there, rounded up and compiled by her mother’s voice-activated personal assistant, a device called LifePod which is programmed to ask questions instead of just answering them.

“It’s a major improvement because it gives me peace of mind,”said McVicar, a 58-year-old retiree. “It gives you a sense of comfort that she’s OK.”

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Popular smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home generally don’t speak until they’re spoken to. But Boston-based LifePod makes a speaker that lets caregivers write up questions and timely reminders to seniors and people with disabilities. These messages are then spoken to the end user at preset times. For instance, at 8:30 a.m., McVicar’s mother hears, “Good morning. I hope you had a nice night’s rest. Are you feeling OK?"

Messages can also contain information to help users with memory problems. LifePod not only reminds McVicar’s mother to check her voice mail, but reminds her which buttons to press.

In addition, LifePod listens to a user’s replies. It understands when someone says “yes” or “no” or “I don’t feel so good,” and relays the information to a caregiver. For instance, when LifePod asks McVicar’s mother if she’s had breakfast, McVicar gets a text message if the answer is “no,” so she can phone her mother and remind her to eat.

The system costs $49 a month or $432 a year, with one smart speaker included.

LifePod is working with Florida-based MobileHelp, a maker of pushbutton medical alert systems for seniors, to add a feature that will respond to verbal calls for help by dispatching police or an ambulance. “A lot of people don’t like wearing buttons,” said MobileHelp chief executive Rob S. Flippo. “I think the ability to use voice opens up that core market.”

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LifePod’s chief executive, Stuart Patterson, said the company worked on the idea for three years before bringing a product to market last fall. At first, the plan was to offer LifePod as a software “skill” that would be added to Amazon’s Echo speakers. But it ran headlong into Alexa’s built-in limitations. For example, while an Alexa user can make voice telephone calls, the system does not support calls to 911 emergency services. In addition, said Patterson, Alexa software doesn’t support LifePod’s ability to ask questions and analyze the user’s answers.

Patterson said Amazon wasn’t interested in adding these features to Alexa. “They’ve said ... this is not for us," Patterson said. "It takes too many resources ... it incurs too much liability. So we built our own platform.”

The company worked with SDI Technologies Inc., a New Jersey electronics company, to design its own smart speaker. They rejected the blank cylindrical look of the Amazon Echo and opted for a rectangular box that resembles an old-school clock-radio. Along with supporting LifePod’s software, the speaker also recognizes verbal requests for news, weather, and music. It will read the top headlines from the Associated Press and the latest forecast from Weather.com. It also connects to the iHeart Radio service. Users can’t ask for specific tunes, but they can ask for an artist or genre — Frank Sinatra, say, or Motown music.

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LifePod can’t begin to match the thousands of skills available through Alexa. But Amazon said it’s working with LifePod and other companies on ways to let other speech-based services run side-by-side with Alexa on the same smart speaker. A caregiver would use a future LifePod device to remind her mother to exercise, but her mother could use Alexa on the same device to order groceries from Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, Boston-based Pillo Health has teamed up with tool and appliance maker Stanley Black & Decker to offer Pria, a speech-controlled automatic pill dispenser. Pria, which costs $700 plus a $10 monthly service fee, uses facial recognition software to make sure it’s giving pills to the right person, and allows the user to make video phone calls. In addition, Pria responds to verbal commands, such as “What’s the weather?” or “Wake me at 8 a.m.”

In addition, Electronic Caregiver Inc. of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has spent $60 million over the past decade to develop Addison Care. It’s a far more expansive system that features a virtual health care worker who appears on a camera-equipped touchscreen. Addison Care delivers an array of advanced features well beyond anything offered by LifePod. Its cameras can capture video of a user taking her medication, to confirm she’s done it. A life-like animated character guides the user in physical therapy exercises. Addison Care connects to wireless medical testing devices like blood pressure monitors and scales, instantly recording the results of in-home tests. Addison Care carries a starting price of $149 a month, and, unlike LifePod, it’s eligible for Medicare reimbursement.

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LifePod is also seeking Medicare eligibility. In addition, the company plans upgrades to make the service more conversational. For instance, if a user says she’s not feeling well, a future LifePod may be able to ask follow-up questions such as “Are you in pain?” The company also hopes to develop the ability to assess a person’s state of mind by recognizing his or her tone of voice.

But even the first-generation LifePod is winning over early adopters. Norma McCluskey of Sudbury worried that her 91-year-old mother would want no part of it. Instead, her mother "liked the fact that it made her kind of cool,” McCluskey said. When her mother’s friends came by and marveled at the black box playing its reminder messages, "she’d be like, `Oh, that’s just my LifePod,'” she said.




Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.