Unlocking the Potential of an Ageing Population

Emerging technologies are making more inclusive products that improve well-being and unlock older people’s human potential

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As we age, we are often viewed as a problem to solve, as individuals within our families and collectively as an ageing population. Despite how we might feel inside, the ageing process will eventually frame us all as dependants or worse still, as invisible. With technology products, this framing means much of the focus has been on answering the specific physical needs of older people. But good technology products require large amounts of investment, which is not always available when creating niche products due to limited market size and profit potential. This often leads to poorly designed and executed products, from cartoon-like fall detection sensors to ghastly big button phones.

There are exceptions, particularly when potential profits are high. For example, PillPack a prescription home-delivery system helps older people to manage their medication regimes. Medication is sorted by dose and delivered directly to the customers door using a combination of convenient packaging, modern technology and personalised service. This helps to eliminate the physical difficulty of opening multiple medicine bottles and overcomes memory and mild cognitive impairment issues that can affect medical compliance—remembering to take your medicine on time and the right order/quantity—and subsequent treatment outcomes. The company was able to invest in advanced technology and high-quality design to achieve very high-average revenue per user (around $5,000 paid via insurance companies) and proved the potential of disrupting a traditional market enough for Amazon to recently acquire them for $753 million.

Pill Pack is a dosed prescription system that contributes to the health of the ageing population
Pill Pack, dosed prescription home-delivery system. Photo courtesy PillBox

But in looking solely at the physical needs of older people to maintain their health we run the risk of missing unexpected opportunities that emerging technologies can provide. Artificial intelligence and more specifically, machine and deep learning are currently being explored to help reduce loneliness and social isolation in older people. Recent studies suggest that people who are socially isolated or live alone are at about 30% higher risk of early death. So the opportunity to improve the quality of our social connections through technology can directly affect our well-being and subsequent health as we age.

ElliQ for example, a social robot by an Israeli start up backed by Samsung, combines a robotic avatar and video conferencing with your close family network. This product is not seeking to replace human interactions but to build better interpersonal relationships and create the kind of emotional connections with virtual assistants you might traditionally have with a treasured pet in order to provide stimulation, companionship and guidance for better well-being.

ElliQ social companion robot for the ageing population
ElliQ social companion robot for seniors. Photo courtesy ElliQ

The practice of inclusive design, which creates products for the whole population, means that everyone should benefit from advances in technology rather than older people having to rely on poorly designed ability specific products. Technology developments are set to make these products even more inclusive. The nature of our interactions with technology will change from ones dominated by explicit interactions, screens, and swipes, to more ambient, human and whole-room led experiences. Computer vision will allow our products to recognise not only who is using them but also what they are doing past and present, so becoming more responsive to our individual actions and prescient of our specific needs. Designers and engineers are developing near future products and services utilising this computer vision technology embodied in development products like the Intel RealSense depth camera. This allows systems to understand the spatial environment, including people and objects through a combination of RGB & infrared cameras and machine-learning databases.

Intel RealSense depth sense camera system improves the well-being of the ageing population
Intel RealSense depth sense camera system. Photo © Matthew Cockerill

This kind of observant technology can seem like bad sci-fi, abstract from our daily lives and uncomfortable, especially with issues around privacy. But it is already starting to influence products like video conferencing which improve how older people are able to maintain social connections. Facebook Portal for example is a range of products that use smart camera systems to recognise your face and keep you in the centre of the frame as you move around the room, if another person enters the room the camera angle widens allowing both of you to be included in the shot. In the past these experiences could often be disorientating as family members passed Granny from person to person. What’s really interesting is that the nature of these calls are changing, from short video by appointment, like the weekly parent/child catch up, into longer more ambient conversations where people share time together as they go about their everyday life in their respective home. This increase in duration and quality of communications offers older people the opportunity to maintain and build the social connections that improve well-being.

The Facebook Portal TV is a technology that enables the ageing population to stay in touch
The Facebook Portal TV. Photo courtesy Facebook

So the real potential of emerging technologies are less about niche, age-specific products targeting physical problems and more about inclusive technology that enables older people to stay in touch, to go where they want, to find new places to explore and meeting old and new friends. This technology will help improve our well-being by unlocking the knowledge and experiences so easily lost as we age and move toward the end of our traditional working lives, and allow us to stay independent for longer and continue to contribute to society.

Main image: Huddly conference camera with object and people detection. Photo courtesy Huddly

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