Beam me in, Grandma

On 'virtual dining' via Accentures video-sharing technology

Ahh…the holidays. A time for getting together with family and sharing good food, wine and conversation over the dinner table. That is, of course, unless you live hundreds of miles away, and connecting with mom and dad simply isn't feasible. Enter the Virtual Family Dining system, a prototype developed by researchers at the Accenture Technology Labs in Chicago.

Designed to connect seniors with their younger family members using broadband video-sharing technology, the system relies on ceiling-mounted cameras that can sense when an elderly parent has finished preparing a meal. It then conducts an electronic survey, of sorts, to see which family members are available to join mom or dad for a virtual chat. Next, a 30-inch television screen pops up at the end of mom and dad's dinner table, featuring a life-sized image of junior. Parent and child can then chat in real time.

Dadong Wan–the senior research scientist who developed the prototype–says in addition to the obvious social benefits of the technology, the presence of others also has a significant, positive impact on the eating behaviours of older adults. A system like this, he adds, could potentially cut down on health-care costs related to nutrition and quality of life in elderly patients.

Wan says the Virtual Family Dining system could be available in North America in as little as six to 12 months, but would likely need to be priced at about US$500 in order to be attractive to buyers. “It's certainly doable even today, it's just a matter of bringing the right parties together, of having a business plan and determining the right price point,” says Wan, who started work on the prototype a year-and-a-half ago. It may not be rocket science–but it certainly takes dinner with the in-laws to a whole new level.