In the near future, the "Internet of Things" -- the idea that all devices and their components will be connected to the cloud and each other -- could revolutionize the world of health care.
Hospitals can be plugged into the smart grid to encourage the use of electronic health records; radio frequency identification, tags can be used to accurately track patients, staff, and equipment; and point-of-care kiosks can make health care more accessible.
Yet, smarter hospitals only represent one way that the Internet of Things can improve health care.
Smart homes, which are enhanced by cloud-connected automated devices, can also help improve personal health. The smart home industry -- which includes entertainment devices, smart home appliances, and other devices -- is projected to grow from $33 billion in 2013 to $71 billion by 2018, according to a recent study by Juniper Research.
Hal Varian, chief economist at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), noticed the prominent role of health care in smart homes, stating that "health will be a bigger driver than environmental issues" in a 2012 interview at FierceWireless Tech. Google also expanded into smart homes with its $3.2 billion purchase of smart thermostat maker Nest in January.
Domestic robots could look after patients
iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT), the company that seamlessly transitioned from making bomb-sweeping robots to Roomba smart vacuum cleaners, should benefit from the growth of the smart home market.
In 2009, iRobot launched its health-care robotics business division, and demonstrated a prototype robotic home health assistant at TEDMED. In theory, the assistant robot could eventually monitor and interact with patients to understand their daily routines and needs. Because the robot could be connected to the cloud, it could become the central control hub for the smart home, regulating entertainment devices, home appliances, thermostats, utilities, and even iRobot's other domestic robots.
Last year, iRobot introduced RP-VITA, a 5-foot tall telepresence robot that allows doctors to conduct remote appointments via a monitor, a webcam, and an onboard stethoscope. The robot can automatically navigate hospital corridors and locate patients, and is controlled via an Apple iPad for telehealth sessions.
The RP-VITA has only been installed in a handful of hospitals, but it could eventually find its way into smart homes as well, providing telepresence appointments to elderly and handicapped patients.
Tracking behavior patterns to prevent dementia and obesity
Meanwhile, Z-Wave -- a common wireless protocol for the automation of lights, security systems, entertainment devices, and household appliances -- is backed by more than 250 companies, including General Electric, Ingersoll-Rand, and Evolve.
Smart home products purchased from these companies can be controlled via a Z-Wave hub, which serves as a smart home's central remote control. While it's easy to see how automating a home via a Z-Wave hub can boost energy efficiency, its long-term implications in health care are even more impressive.
For example, sensors installed in each room can monitor a person's sleep patterns and daily routines, logging and analyzing them over a long-term period. Z-Wave Alliance chairman Mark Walters speculated in a Forbes interview that these sensors could eventually detect the early onset of forms of dementia.
Room-to-room behavior sensors can also log daily physical activity, and issue alerts if a person's lifestyle becomes too sedentary, according to a report from the Mobile & Pervasive Computing Research department at the University of Florida. If smart bathroom scales and wearables are also connected to the network, the home could effectively become an omnipresent personal trainer.
How Apple and Google fit into the big picture
In addition to traditional hubs, Z-wave devices can also be controlled via apps for Apple iOS and Google Android mobile devices. Popular mobile apps include Moonlit Software's InControl Home Automation, Thinkiwi's iVera, and Square Connect's SQ Remote. Free versions of these apps can usually be paired with a limited number of devices, whereas paid versions can be used to control an entire smart-home of Z-wave devices via a smartphone or a tablet.
Apple and Google's newer devices could also open up a world of possibilities with Z-wave and Wi-Fi connectivity. Apple's iPhone 5S is equipped with the new M7 chip, which has motion-tracking abilities that can detect a user's physical activity. Google Glass, which will be released later this year, could potentially grant users hands-free control of their homes.
Both products could greatly enhance the ability of a home to track a user's movements, basic health information, and daily routines.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, we are at the dawn of a new age of fully connected smart homes. Over the next few decades, personal assistant robots might automate household chores, doctor visits can be conducted through telepresence robots, and homes and mobile devices can work together to detect health problems before they occur.
Companies such as IBM and Cisco are laying down the smart grids, and companies such as iRobot, Google, Apple, and many others are manufacturing the connected devices. Therefore, investors should consider these companies as some of the companies trying to adopt new technology that can integrate the Internet of Things into smart homes.
Leo Sun owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Cisco Systems, Google, and iRobot and owns shares of Apple, General Electric, Google, and IBM. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.