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Independence through technology

Deer Crest resident Ken Santelman logs onto HomeStream from a communal computer provided on the main level. Residents also can access the software from their rooms using personal computers or iPads over Wi-Fi. (Republican Eagle photos by Michael Brun)1 / 3
As part of its agreement with the city of Red Wing, HomeStream provided several video cameras to local organizations, including this one near the entrance to Deer Crest. The cameras will be connected to the Internet to allow users to access live feeds through a Web browser.2 / 3
The HomeStream interface uses icons and large text, and is compatible with touch-screen devices. Founder Joel Ackerman said the goal was to make a program that would be simpler than dialing a phone. 3 / 3

A Minneapolis software company has selected Red Wing to test its new Web-based communication service.

HomeStream uses cameras and video calls over the Internet to connect users with family members, churches and other community organizations without having to leave their home, company founder Joel Ackerman said.

“This is our first community level deployment, so we’re really excited.”

Through a partnership with the city of Red Wing and business incubator Red Wing Ignite, HomeStream supplied touchscreen computers and video cameras to nine area organizations, including senior housing at Deer Crest, St. Brigid’s at Hi-Park and Jordan Towers.

Accessed through any Web browser, the HomeStream software provides video calling between users; calendar and email functions; and links to watch live video streams of certain events.

Ackerman said the local user base still is in its early stages of development, but the goal is to get enough organizations signed up for the service to become viable.

“You have to build the gas stations and highways before you get the drivers,” Ackerman said. “But we’re making good progress.”

Red Wing City Council agreed to cover half of the cost of the pilot program — around $19,000 — last year, Ackerman said. The other half was provided by local organizations.

The Sheldon Theatre and Pier 55 also have announced participation in the program, he added.

To provide residents incentives to register, the company is giving anyone in Red Wing a free user account in 2014, Ackerman said. Those who sign up will be grandfathered into the paid version of the service at no future cost.

Ease of use

The HomeStream software was demonstrated at Deer Crest earlier this month and residents were receptive to the idea, housing coordinator Jessica Meacham said.

Although some residents already use tablet computers such as iPads for email and messaging, Meacham said they especially liked how HomeStream combines several functions into a single interface.

“Everything is right there, and that makes it a little easier,” she said.

The interface is the product of around five years of fine tuning and feedback, Ackerman said. “Our design goal is that everything should be simpler than dialing a phone.”

Because the service is based around video, Ackerman said it enhances communication by allowing users to pick up on body language and other visual cues.

“You lose that in email and with phone calls,” he said.

The service also will provide video calls for face-to-face technical assistance via a button on the home screen.

Growing need

As many as 10,000 Americans will reach retirement age each day for the next 16 years, according to projections by the Pew Research Center. By 2030, an estimated 18 percent of the population will be 65 or older.

Ackerman, a boomer himself, said the rate of retirees in the country — and the strain of an aging population on current care systems and infrastructure — prompted the development of HomeStream.

“If you think about the issues of aging and the senior population, it’s a family issue but it’s also a community issue,” he said.

HomeStream is a platform for users to stay engaged in the community despite limited mobility, something the company calls “thriving in place.”

“It’s designed to let people remain in their own homes as long as possible,” Ackerman said. “Or, if they decide to move into a senior living situation, it supports and flows with them.”

Future possibilities

The basic communication features of HomeStream are in place now, but Ackerman said he hopes to see it continue to expand services as more organizations begin utilizing it. Potential uses could be anything from watching live church programs at home to having a video call with the local hardware store about a part.

At Deer Crest, staff members said they already are thinking of ways the software can be used to improve the lives of residents, including using video cameras to broadcast events happening in the building’s community room.

“We had a crowning of the Valentine’s Day king and queen recently, but their daughter couldn’t come,” said Jackie Brenne, activities director for Deer Crest. “We have a lot of great entertainment here, and family members would like to be able to see what we’re doing.”

Through administrative tools, HomeStream can give authorized users access to certain video streams, Ackerman said. For instance, allowing family members to monitor loved ones remotely.

“It’s just very exciting and innovating,” Brenne said.

The lessons learned in the Red Wing pilot will be used to improve the software as it expands to rural and urban communities, Ackerman said.

He added that the company will be setting up video-based call centers in the near future, and is eying Red Wing as a possible first location.

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Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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