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Technology for all ages

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

When I heard about a project aiming to make technology less intimidating for the older generation, I wondered whether it might be just a little bit patronising. Why should we assume that when you reach a certain age you need a phone with big buttons, or a younger helper to guide you around the web?

But instead, a morning spent at Surrey University's Digital World Research Centre taught me something about where technology might be heading in the future. Psychologists, computer scientists and product designers, in a team led by Professor David Frohlich, have been working with elderly people to try to come up with some gadget concepts.

Elderly couple with laptop

It's all part of wider national programme called Sus-IT, sustaining IT use by older people to promote autonomy and independence. What's different about the Surrey scheme is the part played by elderly people.

I met John and Sonia Williams and Margaret Fry, all in their seventies, and each helping to refine the various gadget concepts with Professor Frohlich and his team. They had varying degrees of familiarity with new technology - from Margaret who had used a computer at work for years, to John who admitted he had never been near one and was only just getting to grips with a mobile phone. But what they had in common was an eagerness not to be left behind by the modern era.

We saw three different ideas for products that would help older people towards a more useful relationship with technology, while reconnecting them with the past. First, the story lamp - when you place an object or a photo beneath it, an audio recoding tells you a story around it. So the photograph album reminds you who were the people in the pictures and what they were doing.

Then there was the reminiscence radio, in effect an iPhone "This Is Your Life" app, allowing the user to click on a timeline and hear music and memories from the past.

And finally the travel glasses, which project images from the present or past onto the lenses, allowing the user to travel around the world or even into the past without leaving their armchair.

Now all of these were concepts, rather than finished products, but Professor Frohlich said the point of the project was that the elderly people had played a part in shaping them. He referred to them as his co-designers and explained: "We ask a very simple question; what would you like to keep, lose or change about the idea and as they think about that and work through it as a group, it's less threatening."

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Halfway through the morning at Surrey University, something struck me. The ideas being piloted here were similar to those I'd seen at Microsoft's research laboratory - they all involved abandoning the traditional computer and keyboard in favour of what are called natural user interfaces. Touch, talk, and motion look like becoming the ways we interact with computers in future - often without realising that the computer is there at all.

When technology firms design new products, they look to early adopters for ideas and approval - the elderly are shut out of the process. Yet across today's technology industry, the most successful new products are those which are easier to use. So the Surrey academics and their elderly collaborators could be helping to shape the gadgets of the future.


  • Comment number 1.

    Reminiscence radio? Now THAT'S a patronising concept. I am 55 and the day I start passing the time in pointless nostalgia for the past is the day I might as well give up. It's the quickest way to become old in your head as well as in your cells. And as for 'travel glasses' - GO THERE, don't sit at home! It is better to go 50 miles away in reality than to go 5000 miles from an armchair. WHEN will journalists understand that today's older people are not like their grannies, old at 45? We have a lot of living left to do and we don't plan to spend the last 30 years of our lives sitting on our backsides whinging about how terrible the modern world is. Well, I certainly don't.

  • Comment number 2.

    There's a whole generation of people in their 60s and even 70s who have used computers (and technology) for decades and who are entirely comfortable around them. The people I've found are great at picking up things they've not tried before, even things like PSPs and games consoles. (Then again, 22 years ago my gran - aged 70 at the time - was into games consoles. It's not a new phenomenon).

    Equally well there are some in their late 60s/early 70s who managed to avoid computers during their working lives and who want no part of it.

    Over the coming years this latter group will diminish markedly, I reckon, as it's not an uncommon thing to have a 65-year-old tapping away on a PC or making phone calls on a mobile. 20 years ago, maybe, but technology is so pervasive these days that the number of those left out will be shrinking markedly. As time goes by, the 65 year-olds will become 75 and 85-year olds and I'm sure they'll not lose their zest for technology even at such an advanced age.

  • Comment number 3.

    Whenever I have to explain how to do something on the computer to anyone (old or not), it always strikes me that it's insanely complicated.
    I think this is because we try to get the same box to do everything: maybe this idea of having separate appliances for different purposes helps with that. But at the moment, people just want to send e.mails and buy stuff on the net, which means you have to confront Firefox or Internet Explorer, both of which look like the flight deck of a jumbo jet. Are all these controls necessary? How about an oldie's web surfing box?

  • Comment number 4.

    Leathersofa's comment "Go there", is fine if you a: Have the money, b: can get the travel/medical insurance at an advanced age and c: are not confined to your home or thereabouts due to infirmity. As to "Reminiscence Radio", when did you last wish you had kept a recording of some song or piece of music. Come on, lighten up. Horses for courses. I am nearly seventy, but have a self built fairly powerful PC, a very expensive HiFi unit, an NAS (Network attached storage) unit, a Mac Book Pro and some camera equipment that you might die for, but I am not lusting after an iPhone, iPpad or Blackberry, nor do I gorge on junk food, one night stands or excess alchohol. I do like listening to old music at times, (How's your Bach, Beethoven, Grieg or Chopin for instance?

    I could go on, but as they say , " 'Nuff said. You pays your money and makes your choices".

  • Comment number 5.

    i to have had a computer since 1985. i even lent from computer mags of the day to program them in basic programing. and wrote loads of games for my then young son. as for sitting their moaning about how bad the moden world is now, well that's because it is bad. it is people of my generation that started the computer world as it is, and not this generation. they are just living of our backs

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm 55 and my generation brought personal computers to the masses. I have children aged 25 upwards and all of them phone me for help with computers. The only thing they know about them are Facebook and games.

    Ask them format a hard disk and re-install Windows is like talking a foreign language to them.

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with Clive Sinclair. To most 'young' people a computer is powered by pixie dust and magic. All they know is how to post Facebook updates. None of them have ever turned on a computer and been confronted by a black screen with a flashing cursor.

    As far as older people are concerned I think that huge advances need to be made for people with failing sight and impaired movement. Most gadgets and computers are covered in tiny buttons and icons.

  • Comment number 8.

    I am 74 and my wife is 70. We have both been using computers since the 70's. I have written many programs myself an we are both comfortable using laptops daily.
    A friend of ours is 76 and still teaches computer skills to teenagers.
    I think a lot of experts are very condesending in their attitude to oldies.

  • Comment number 9.

    Of course there are another group of oldies - those that designed and designed the computers and software we use today! (see Steve Jobs and other old men.)

    There are, I suspect, far more young fogies than there are old ones - education having developed as it is. I mean what the hell is ICT! Computing yes, but wrapping up it up with communication - why? First it would be better if they kids understood the how and why of computing. They have even dropped numbers to different bases from maths, I understand - so how can anyone today work in hexadecimal or even binary. If you can't programme the boot strap loader in in hex on the switches on the front panel you can't really say you understand computing! These educationalists don't understand computing so they had to rename it!!! Unlike the Chinese who still teach it properly!

    It is the dumb kids that need the big buttons and can't understand or use menus and mice - these are the ones that need the help! Heavens that can't even cope with the idea of applications - the word is too long for the little dears they have to call them apps. Anyone I haven't had a go at....??? That is I am afraid the virtue of experience!!!!

  • Comment number 10.

    My mother turned 60 this month and plays World of Warcraft.

  • Comment number 11.

    Gremlins in the Cybernetic Implants - I can see the headlines now,. Next Generation of Teenage Hoodlums hack into Off Road Mobility Vehicle to do Back Flips and Summersaults in OAP Cage Fights. Bull Bars an optional extra. It’s the Ideal Home Show for Pensioners at Olympia n’it.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm almost 60 and I program simulators and video games. I'm not alone. The youngest person in my team for developing 3D simulators and games last year was me. Others were up to 80 years old.

    Rory, I thought that the tone of your entire article was quite patronising. Don't think for a moment that us oldies need patronising and simplistic little devices or patronising attitudes from do-gooders so that we can "get modern".

    The reason some of us want phones that just make calls is that it is all we want from a phone. We're smart enough to know that the rest of the "functions" are just pointless dross, meant to impress the daft little kiddies.

    To me, an iPhone is a waste of time. If I want to play games I have twin 28inch monitors on my desk. Why waste my time on a screen the size of a postage stamp?

    Stop patronising us. We probably know far more than any gadget-dazzled journalist or University undergraduate!

  • Comment number 13.

    At the age of 59 I use computers all the time - but keep thinking of the Who song - Substitute - The simple things you see are all complicated

  • Comment number 14.

    This is a article is "a bit passed it"as one might say,most older folk can operate a PC,at least those who want to.
    Like others here,my wife and I both have our own computers which I have built from scratch and keep up dated.
    My off spring and their off spring usually turn to me when anything goes wrong with their computers,age,yes we are both much nearer 70 than one would like.Plus I have a laptop and mobile phone that I am more than capable of using.Tablet will be the next thing as and when I can afford one.

  • Comment number 15.

    Well, Mr Rory Cellan-Jones! It seems there are many others who, like me, have been using computers - amongst other items of so-called 'new technology' for many years without any problems whatsoever. Where have you been?

  • Comment number 16.

    I am 77 years of age (not 77 years young as so many middle aged people patronisingly refer to us). I am disabled and have been using a computer for 7 years. I have a PC with 2 19inch monitors and a laptop, both of which I use for several hours daily. These have given me a new lease of life for as much as like my large screen TV I find the computers offer so much more. Surfing the internet is a wonderful experience and email offers so much more along with Skype etc. I have learnt a great deal from such sites as Wickipedia and I have made literally hundreds of online purchases for my wife and myself. Needless to say I have the best security on offer
    and am in the process of going over to the Linux system which is almost totally secure. I am fortunate though in having a first class computer engineer and instructor who although living over 50 miles away performs most work on both my PC and laptop remotely. In conclusion I would just like to add in response to the first posting here that I do live my life both in reality and on my computers in glorious nostalgia. I have hundreds of photographic memories all filed on both machines and agree wholeheartedly with another poster that today is so bad when compared to the safe and slower lifestyle of the post war years. That is not whinging, just a clear observation as is the fact that things can only get worse.
    How I wish it were not so.

  • Comment number 17.

    There was a chap in American news who was 80 and was still playing tennis regularly. His secret to long life is to always keep doing something, and look for new things to do. Technology is a tool - not a life in itself, and can only help so much for the elderly (or any demographic for that matter) to achieve their goals. Life is what you make of it (at least in the developed world)

  • Comment number 18.

    My Dad can't use a computer, but he definitely knows how useful they are. But for reasons of sight, and the fact that he hasn't got a computer, he's never used one. So instead - he asks me to find things for him on the internet, to check his bank balance, send emails etc - I am his access -

  • Comment number 19.

    I understand email and some internet,files and folders are double dutch to me.this is supposed to be easy,but it is never taught on computer courses,am i thick or are some things so simple tutors do not know how to teach them,

  • Comment number 20.

    This is a perfect illustration of what happens when we define people by age and specifically when we target the 'elderly'. We don't assume that all people aged 35 have similar tastes and abilities so why does that happen once we pass the age of 50? On the flip side of this I know several young people who have no knowledge and/or interest in using computers.

  • Comment number 21.

    I'm 67, first had modern computer (as distinct from glorified typewriter) a year ago. What you can find via Google is endlessly fascinating: radio and tv programmes (streamed and archive) from round the world, info on every topic under the sun, song lyrics, quotations which take me to complete works, maps, a photo of the tiny house where the grandmother I never knew was born, local planning decisions - and so much more. Then there's Amazon, eBay and iTunes & savings on energy bills and insurance. And improving and storing photographs, new or scanned in. And copying cds and downloads onto my iPod. The BBC iPlayer, of course - and videos of the Moscow Cat Theatre. And watching dvds. And Facebook. And YouTube. It has widened my horizons, enlarged my world, in some ways it has even renewed my life. And hardly a speck of nostalgia anywhere, or a concession to my declining faculties, or a focus on my own past. In (almost) every respect this is a great time to be old!

  • Comment number 22.

    Unlike 'Clive Sinclair and Jimfo' above I want my computer to work on 'Pixie Dust'. A well designed product works without user knowledge, I do not expect to need to format the disc in my electric kettle, to reboot my Washing Machine or reprogram my lawn mower. A computer is simply a spanner, a tool for a job.
    Good design requires that my spanners work in a simple and predictable manner, without the need for a help menu, wiht buttons that are of sufficient size to see when wearing the wrong glasses or gloves, with trext of sufficient size to read in poor light.
    This household runs on various computers, for info gathering and communications to direct control of household functions such as heating cooling and curtains. There are time when all of the family are using conventional computers, either being 'online' or for one of the many other functions available, our ages range from mid 60's downwards.
    Our biggest gripe about current computers is the unreliability of operating systems and the unnecessary complexity of controls. The biggest advance for all is the constant fall in price of specialist computer devices, and the availability of what was once 'sci-fi' medical devices for all.
    Surrey University please note:- More Pixie Dust and less complexity.

  • Comment number 23.

    Long before computers were so common-place, I always applied a "granny" test to any new item I would buy.

    To me, this meant: "If my granny looked at this, would she be able to understand how to operate it, without having to use the instruction manual?".

    Try applying this yourself around the house, and see just how many microwaves, DVD's, mobile phones are impenetrable, non-intuitive, or un-ergonomically designed.

    A lot of appliances are designed lazily, and with functionality that is put there "just because they can", and not "because it's actually useful".

    Let's have more "demanding grannies" forcing our tech-designers to be less lazy with their design.

  • Comment number 24.

    Interesting to read the strong reactions to the article on our work. I would like to reply in general terms.

    Everyone on this blog is familiar enough with computers to post a comment. Half the people in our study were not computer users and couldn't do this. Therefore their views are not represented above, and they remain excluded from the benefits of computing. Our initial design ideas mentioned in the article were targetted primarily at them to make selected functions more accessible through appliances.

    However, the other group we worked with were regular computer users of retirement age - more like the authors of the comments above. They made many of the same comments in our groups! In fact the overall finding was that non-users liked the appliances we showed and tended to re-design variations of them in the creative sessions, while the PC/Mac users liked the functionality but re-designed to incorporate it within their existing laptops, iphones, gamestations and so on. Sometimes this involved the design of novel accessories to those devices, or apps that don't exist today.

    So there is really room for both approaches in the marketplace, and in general new technology should be customised to fit existing infrastructures and skills. What we were promoting in the interview was a process of involvement of older people in design where initial starting concepts are used as triggers for feedback and co-design. It doesn't really matter if the starting concepts are rejected. In fact that leads to better discussion and new ideas, such as is emerging in this blog...

    David Frohlich


  • Comment number 25.

    Let me start by saying that I am also working on the Sus-IT research project to which Rory Cellan-Jones’ article on the Today programme referred. Some of the comments above refer to Rory’s portrayal of the piece and, as my colleague David Frohlich says, have been made by people who are already very comfortable with the use of computers. I would, though, like to make two further points, which will hopefully expand the picture.

    Our work here at Loughborough University is focussing on the technical aspects of making the whole computing experience easier for those who face difficulties due to ageing. We are trying to “fix” the problems that people have as their sight starts to deteriorate and/or the fine motor skills that they need to operating a mouse or touch screen start to elude them. The second point to make is that we are looking at all aspects of Information and Communication Technology use as part of this project. We are looking not just at “traditional” computers, but at mobile telephones, tablet computers, digital televisions, cameras, in fact anything that relies upon software even if the user does not appreciate that the product is just a computer in disguise. Some of the people who have already commented may reach the stage, with advancing age, of needing extra support. Such support exists on some of these devices, especially what I have called “traditional computers”, but is sometimes very hard to find, and that’s if you even know it’s available.

    All of us, regardless of age or infirmity, have something that we find difficult to do or understand. Our project is making tentative steps into making devices easier for everyone to use and what we’re doing is to bring the world of usability and, particularly, rather secret accessibility into the main stream. We’re definitely not trying to patronise the elderly by developing devices just for them.

  • Comment number 26.

    "a project aiming to make technology less intimidating for the older generation,"

    The least intimidating technology for any generation would be the products coming out of Apple. A perfect example is the iPad. Technology should be easy to use.


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