One of the main issues in the design and development of AmI technologies and services is the user involvement throughout the process. User involvement also implies testing and validating the developments at different stages in spaces and conditions as similar as possible to the real ones. This is usually solved by using laboratories which are designed to resemble specific rooms or complete houses; incorporating very diverse devices (sensors, actuators, control networks...) what usually involves very high costs for a research centre. For this reason, only few centres can afford one of these smart living labs. In other cases, developments can be validated in real environments such as homes, nursing centres, hospitals... In this case, the main problem is that in order to avoid disturbing the users only final validations are performed, which in many cases may not be satisfactory.
For this reason, the Domotics and Ambient Intelligence (DAI) Research Group at the University of Alicante developed metalTIC – Digital Home, for the Federation of Metal-working firms in our province, and DAI Lab at the University campus. Although these labs allowed us to integrate multiple technologies and services and the validation with real users, the problem was that tests and validations during the development should be carried out in these real spaces. So, researchers have to move there, and change the operation of the laboratories adding the new services or interfaces. This also implied to manage a scheduling system among researchers in order to use them.
Due to these drawbacks using the physical labs, our researchers developed and tested new services and interfaces in a different lab on computers running the same middleware, so that when they were already validated they could be incorporated to the living lab and validated with real users. Behaviour of the system was showed as a log file of the state of the devices or answers of the web services. So, users only received “real” answers of the system at the end of the projects. This made user involvement in previous stages very difficult.
So, we started an internal project for the development of a virtual lab, DAI Virtual Lab, which incorporates the same technologies and services that the physical lab; uses the same middleware and produces results of actions which are similar to those that would happen in the real environment. Currently, we have two virtual environments (one is similar to metalTIC - Digital Home and the other one to DAI Lab), but the goal for the future is to enable that researchers could design ad-hoc virtual laboratories with the devices and services that they require.
The realism of these virtual spaces allows validating at any moment the development of new services, interfaces... with users, obtaining a continuous feedback and facilitating the process. Besides, the transfer of the developments is immediate if there is a real space with the same devices, services and middleware than the virtual one, as there is in our case
Nowadays, in the next phase of the project we are developing a tool to graphically design services. Using flow charts researchers will be able to relate sensors and actuators, controlling them according to a knowledge base and the inputs to the system. These charts will be compiled and integrated as middleware services in the system. In the near future the project will incorporate new technologies like social robots; simulation of behaviour, for example, to simulate the generation of energy from different sources according to the environment conditions, daily consumptions; presence simulation, affective computing…
DAI Virtual Lab will soon be freely available to all researchers in the ambient intelligence field. We will also hold several competitions that make use of DAI Virtual Lab. This would allow an increase in technologies and services incorporated to it. For instance, we are preparing competitions about interfaces for disabled people, services for ambient intelligence, and energy-efficient models. In fact, the lab is already being used by MSc and PhD students at our university in their works. DAI Virtual Lab allows them to validate their works at any time avoiding their schedules to clash.