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Red Button — A simple way of getting help to the aged

As a software engineer, I’ve always been interested in unique ways of solving complex problems. It’s part of the trade. With my elderly grandparents advancing in age and suffering from the inevitable and universal problems that come with that, I turned my attention to them and how I can play a role in their continued safety.

A serious and real fear for my family is that if one of them suffered a fall, or perhaps worse, that we would have no way of knowing. Various health conditions meant that phone calls were impossible, and obviously that would imply that SMS or Email is out too.

There are various companies offering services for the elderly in this state. One product my grandparents used for a while was a watch with a button that they could press in an emergency. The major problem with this is that all of these type of products go to an in-between — a call centre that would first be alerted, that would then ring the family. To be clear: My grandparents push a button, a call centre would ring them, and then the whole family. Any time of day. Even if it was pressed by accident. And all of this terrible service came at a significant financial cost.

Yes, this was technically a solution. But in the real world, people of advanced age can be clumsy, or forgetful about what the button on their wrist means. The buttons on these watches were being pressed morning, noon and night for weeks. And every time it involved all parties having to field calls from call centres — A nightmare as I hope you can imagine.

Why, oh why, do all of these products have a call centre in the middle of the system? Why are these safety systems so clunky and nightmarish, and fraught with false positives from flimsy buttons, when this should be such a simple and essential service.

This all led to me deciding to take it into my own hands to design and build something unique, simple and fool proof.

Our requirements were very simple. We needed a simple to understand system, with a simple set of routines, that would only be triggered in the event of an actual emergency.

So I made the ‘Red Button’.

Forgive the amateur case, and uninspiring aesthetic. This is the first prototype that is built for absolute function over form.

It’s so simple. If there are ever any issues in the house that require family attention, a grandparent only need tap the big red button. When this happens, the whole close family is alerted immediately via text. We all have custom alert tones and vibrations set so that when a text comes through from this device we are all made very aware of it.

No more random presses. If the button is pressed, it was meant to be pressed. And when pressed, it comes through directly to us. No call centre hassling my grandparents who can barely hear them at 3AM. No call centres harassing the rest of the family at 3AM.

The build for this prototype is extremely simple. A Raspberry Pi microcomputer as the core, a stock arcade button connected via GPIO to the board, a lunchbox as a temporary case, and a 5V fan to ensure adequate airflow.

I also am leveraging Twilio — a VOIP service that gives simple and easy to use API calls to send SMS messages, Whatsapp messages, and even the ability to make calls. I decided on SMS ultimately for this project as its by far the most reliable method of sending such important notifications.

The software side of the project is arguably the least interesting part, which pains me as a software engineer to admit. It runs a slightly modified Raspbian OS that automatically launches a simple Python script on boot, which is in a constant state of waiting for the button to be pressed. Once it’s pressed, it contacts the Twilio API and sends texts to the phone numbers specified in an onboard config file. Simple as that.

Thankfully the device has not had to have been used in the real world yet, but I test it a few times a week and success rate so far is 100%. The whole system is so simple that I have to ask, why wouldn’t it ever be 100%? And the more important question ultimately is:

Why isn’t there a product like this on the market? This is such an obvious way of unobtrusively and passively protecting vulnerable people.

So that’s my ‘Red Button’ project. I hope if you’re a software or hardware enthusiast that this inspires you to come up with your own simple and unique ways of solving your, and your loved ones, important problems.

Professional software engineer and hardware hobbyist

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