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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 10:44 GMT
Rosy outlook for gadgets for elderly
By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website in Las Vegas

LG VX9800 mobile device
Most new gadgets are designed for agile hands
Talk of the latest gadgets tends to be about sleek, shiny gizmos with little buttons and copious functions.

But the big growth area for consumer electronics may lie with something less flashy than the latest music player from Apple or mobile from Motorola.

Instead, the future may lie in devices that care for an aging population, used to living on their own and with money to spend.

The issue is particular pressing in the US, where there are currently 36 million Americans over the age of 65.

More pressingly, the generation of baby boomers coming, with 5,500 of them turning 65 every day.

"Our entire healthcare system is broken," said Russell Bodoff, Executive Director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington DC.

"But aging is like a tidal wave 10 years out. We believe this is going to overwhelm our healthcare," he told a session at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

His organisation looks at how technology can be harnessed to aid the elderly.

Remote care

In his opinion, this is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

"We have to do something different," he said. "It is very possible that in next 10 years, Medicaid will go bankrupt so not doing something else is not a viable option."

Older people are always trying to figure out something that is invented for young people
Gregg Vanderheiden, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"There is a different perspective in Europe and Japan where government are getting ready to deal with aging.

"When you look at the potential size of the market, estimated at $140bn, the US industry is asleep."

There is already a range of healthcare products available, from devices that monitor a patient's activities, to those that keep track of medication usage.

Among the companies trying to tap into this lucrative market is the Health Hero Network.

"What we are providing is a daily check-in with a nurse," said the company's CEO Stephen Brown.

"We have 10,000 homes with daily monitoring," he said, explaining that the aim was to catch any potential problems early on.

But he reckons that are at least 20 million people in the US who could benefit from remote monitoring over the phone, internet or TV.

"We expect our healthcare system to perform miracles when we get in trouble and that is not sustainable.

"We need to think about how we can change the model of healthcare, from a reactive to a proactive system that prevents unnecessary cost and crisis."

Easy to use

Often the needs of an older population are at odds with the design of new gadgets.

According to usability experts, the people creating the devices do not consider how older people will react.

Health Hero Network's Health Buddy
Devices for the elderly are designed with large buttons and screens
"Buttons are too close together or labels are hard to read," explained Rich Buttiglieri, a usability consultant at the Design and Usability Center, Bentley College, Massachusetts.

"One of the major challenges with designers is to get them to take into account the abilities of your end user."

As technology marches into the future and devices offer more power and more functions, this is likely to become a bigger issue.

Most mobiles, for instance, now have far more processing power than early home computers.

So while they can do far more than just make calls, the controls may baffle a vast swathe of the population.

"Older people are always trying to figure out something that is invented for young people and they are always going to have trouble," said Gregg Vanderheiden, professor of industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"'What we're finding is that the things that are easy to use are disappearing off the market," he added, citing an anecdote of an older couple who could not find a microware they could work.

"With older people, you have to start from where they are, make things easy to use. Then expose them to these and you will see a far larger uptake."




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