CSAIL team shows President Obama their motion-tracking device at White House Demo Day

President Barack Obama greets MIT Professor Dina Katabi and graduate student Zachary Kabelac at the White House. (Not pictured: Fadel Adib.)
President Barack Obama greets MIT Professor Dina Katabi and graduate student Zachary Kabelac at the White House. (Not pictured: Fadel Adib.)
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It’s rare that anyone, including even an MIT computer scientist, is extended an invitation to the Oval Office. Even rarer, still: the opportunity to fall on your face in front of the “Leader of the Free World.”

To be clear, this particular fall in question was intentional. On Tuesday, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) were part of a select group of entrepreneurs that gave President Obama an in-person demo about their innovation — a device that uses radio waves to detect, predict, and prevent falls among the elderly.

The live-streamed visit was part of the White House’s first annual Demo Day, which is aimed at fostering greater diversity in technology entrepreneurship.

Professor Dina Katabi and CSAIL graduate students Fadel Adib and Zachary Kabelac presented “Emerald,” a system that can monitor breathing, heart rate, and changes in gait and body elevation with such precision that it may soon be able to predict declines in health and increased risk of falling.

(Watch President Obama speak to the team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ChKSyZUtVw&feature=youtu.be&t=2h2m27s)

Katabi says that every year 2.5 million elderly Americans are treated in emergency rooms because of falls, costing over $34 billion annually.

A more traditional way to try to solve this problem is with wearable technology, but most older people don’t want to have to always wear a special watch or pendant. Instead, Emerald uses one in-home sensor and data analytics to track a person’s movements from the radio waves that reflect off their body, without requiring the monitored person to wear any sensor on their body.

If a fall is detected, the device immediately contacts the individual’s caregiver and, after a period of three minutes, calls an ambulance. Similar to a Wi-Fi router, Emerald works even if the person is in a different room than the device.

Emerald was named a finalist of MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in May. The technology is based on the CSAIL researchers' work on “WiTrack,” which uses wireless signals to detect movement and vital signs. The team was one of only eight groups selected from across the country to present their innovations directly to President Obama, who described the visiting technologists as “heirs to Lewis and Clark and Jonas Salk.”

“I’m surprised that you got a sensor that is that sensitive from that distance to be reliable enough to get meaningful data,” Obama said to the CSAIL team, after calling the device “pretty cool” and “fantastic.”

Katabi says that she’s hopeful that the device can help “empower the elderly to live safely and independently,” and is also eager to see whether it may have other key applications in personal health, baby monitors, and even search-and-rescue.

More generally, she says the Demo Day itself made apparent how important it is to promote diversity in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Such a small percentage of start-up founders are women and people of color,” says Katabi. “It was refreshing to see that the government is interested in creating more opportunities for under-represented groups.”