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Cambridge startup ZebCare contends that a Kinect can keep an eye on grandma

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 21, 2012 08:05 AM

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Zeb Kimmel, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, had some pretty creative thoughts about how Microsoft's Kinect accessory could be used for things other than playing games. Earlier this year, Kimmel hacked together some software that used the Kinect's sensors to figure out the bra or shirt size of a person standing in front of the device.

"The idea was that one of the big barriers in apparel e-commerce is that you can't measure people like you could if they were in a retail store," he explains. But it was a different notion that earned Kimmel entrance into the Kinect Accelerator in Seattle. (He was the lone Massachusetts entrepreneur to participate in the joint TechStars/Microsoft program this year.)

He proposed using the Kinect to keep an electronic eye on senior citizens living alone.

"Forty percent of seniors say they fear losing their home, independence, and privacy more than they fear death," says Kimmel. "What we've created is a kind of smart radar that monitors movement without using video, and can look for deviations from normal activity."

For an alpha test earlier this year, which involved five seniors, Kimmel installed a laptop and a Kinect in either their living room or kitchen, and connected the laptop to a WiFi network. The Kinect didn't record images or video of what was happening in the room, but instead relied on its depth sensors to track people moving in and out of the room in a way that made them look like amorphous blobs on the screen.

Obviously, if grandma usually comes into the kitchen for breakfast at 7:30, and on one particular day she still hadn't shown up by 9, her children or friends might want to receive an alert. But Kimmel, who is that rare MD who also holds a master's in computer science and an MBA, says he's going a few steps further than simply sounding the alarm when normal comings and goings change. "The way you move indicates your state of health," he says. "When your walking speed changes, that is predictive of fall risk, and it could also mean you're depressed, or that you have pneumonia." Kimmel says he is also beginning to use the Kinect to analyze the movement of individual joints like knees and ankles, and how it changes over time. He believes that information will prove useful for doctors and physical therapists.

"My goal is to acquire signals from how people move, but protect their privacy," he says.

Participating in the Kinect Accelerator required that Kimmel cough up six percent of his startup's equity in exchange for $20,000. Kimmel says he's now in the midst of raising a $300,000 funding round for the Cambridge startup, which he has dubbed ZebCare. He's also adding team members, and talking with hospital chains and insurers to gauge their interest in the technology.

We'll see whether ZebCare might be the startup that helps introduce Microsoft's Kinect to a (much) older demographic...

The video of Kimmel's presentation at the Kinect Accelerator is below. It took place in June 2012.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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