A new Manitoba research hub hopes to leverage computers, virtual technology and artificial intelligence to study and develop supports for patients in recovery, people with disabilities and older adults with conditions such as Alzheimer's who want to live independently in their homes.

On Monday, the University of Manitoba and the Health Sciences Centre Foundation announced a $3-million "living lab" headquartered at the U of M's Rady Faculty of Health Sciences' College of Rehabilitation Sciences. Donors put up half the funds while the U of M matched the rest of the funding for the research facility, according to a U of M news release.

"Manitobans need access to technology that can support their ability to live in their homes and communities and stay healthy and participate and feel a sense of well-being," Dr. Jacquie Ripat, who was named endowed chair of the Technology for Assisted Living program, said at rehabilitation sciences college Monday.

Ripat, associate professor of occupational therapy with the College of Rehabilitation Sciences, is in charge of research efforts at the program looking into how technology can be better used to make living spaces more accessible for people with different needs.

A woman with shoulder-length blond hair in a green shirt and poppy pinned below her left shoulder.
Dr. Jacquie Ripat, associate professor of occupational therapy with the College of Rehabilitation Sciences, was named chair of the new endowed chair in technology for assisted living. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"We are healthiest and happiest when we can be in the comfort of our homes rather than living in institutional care, and this is now becoming a reality for many more people than ever before thanks to research enhancements," said Peter Nickerson, dean and vice-provost of health sciences at the U of M.

Some of those enhancements were on display in a "smart suite" constructed in the rehabilitation hospital.

A kitchen with accessibility functions shown in a lab constructed at a medical college.
The kitchen in the 'smart suite' includes a range of modifications to help people with accommodation needs more easily live at home. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The suite — complete with a kitchen, living room and two bathrooms — is designed with a variety of sensors throughout the apartment. That includes lift systems, special controls for operating lights, television, blinds and more to help people with accommodation needs age in place.

"[It's] a really nice living space that helps you to think about how technology can be integrated into peoples' lives," said Ripat, who is also vice-dean of academic affairs with the College of Rehabilitation Sciences.

A woman in a green outfit presses a button that operates a hoist in a research lab.
Dr. Ripat operates controls for an assistive hoist in the 'smart lab' bathroom at the U of M's Rady Faculty of Health Sciences' College of Rehabilitation Sciences building. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Students in rehabilitation, occupational therapy, physical therapy, respiratory therapy and other fields also have access to the smart suite for training purposes both on their own as well as with patients.

Research is also going to be conducted at a green space where products will be tested for outdoor use, and a "mixed-reality lab" will test out virtual and augmented reality applications in health care.

The program research is largely focused on technologies and aids that can help seniors, patients with chronic illnesses, rehabilitation or disability needs, as well as their families.

A digital tablet shows different buttons for controlling the closing of blinds in different rooms of a home.
A digital tablet shows different buttons for controlling the closing of blinds in different rooms of a home. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But researchers will also be studying ways to make certain health-care procedures more accessible to people living on remote First Nations or in rural communities.

They'll explore ways patients can do things like lab tests at home using specialized test strips and smartphone apps, and send the results in an instant to a health-care professional at a different location who can advise on next steps for care.

The program will also collaborate with experts in Manitoba's local robotics, biomedical sciences and information technology sectors, according to the joint U of M-HSC news release.

Ripat showed off an example of what's possible in the form of a "telepresence" robot.

She described one scenario where a child in hospital for a prolonged period could project their face onto a tablet, or the "head" of the robot, and control the robot remotely to take in lessons and participate in the classroom.

A robot is seen in a crowded room.
Dr. Jacquie Ripat shows off a "telepresence" robot. She said the person in control can remotely project their face onto the screen to provide guidance to another person who has the robot present. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A senior could have one of the robots in their home, and their adult child or a medical professional could use it to provide them guidance remotely on, say, things in the kitchen or elsewhere in the home, said Ripat.

Jon Lyon, president and CEO at Health Sciences Centre Foundation, said the technology for assisted living program is an example of what's possible through a combination of virtual care, philanthropy and innovation.

Part of the $3 million announced Monday comes from a $30-million commitment announced in 2016 from alumnus Ernest Rady and his family.

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