Science & Technology



Gadgets for seniors: Ambitious techies roll out robots, smart gear for their elders

Seung Lee, The Mercury News on

Published in Science & Technology News

For older adults, the current landscape of technological devices may already be too hard to navigate. A May 2017 survey by Pew Research found only 26 percent of adults over the age of 65 were "very confident" in using smartphones, tablets and computers -- compared to 74 percent of adults between 18 and 29 years old.

Some of the design features that younger adults look for in devices, like a smaller size and a quieter speaker, are undesirable for older adults, Perissinotto said. Older adults often struggle to hear or read fine print, and they may lose sensitivity in their fingertips, requiring more force to press icons on a touchscreen. They also may forget basic digital tasks or not know how to do them, such as signing into a Wi-Fi network.

Barry Sardis, 70, a retired Silicon Valley computer programmer who lives in a San Jose retirement community, is interested in the new generation of personal-assistant devices for the elderly. Sardis is testing a prototype personal robot from ElliQ, which won a Best of Innovation award at CES.

Sardis said he is testing ElliQ's ability to proactively ask questions or suggest activities that exceed capabilities of popular smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home, which only respond when they are called.

ElliQ is made of two parts: a movable smart speaker and a tablet screen. The smart speaker moves on its own when communicating with a user to convey body language and lights up during certain actions to signal that it's paying attention. The tablet will display music, send messages to ride-hailing apps and provide closed captioning responses so users who are hard of hearing can read what ElliQ says.

"The reason the social robots struck me as something for the elder-care market is that I see them as something like smartphones," Sardis said. "Smartphones are multi-functional, and there is a broad range of requirements and desires from the elder community."

Unlike other personal robots, which normally have a face and are able to move around the room with wheels or mechanical legs, ElliQ purposely does not look human to prevent any notion that the robot is a suitable alternative to human-to-human interaction.

"Body language with lights and closed captioning make (ElliQ) more intuitive, but ElliQ is not a person," said ElliQ founder Dor Skuler, whose company has announced plans to test the device with more people in retirement homes in Marin County and Florida.

Other startups aim to ease older adults into using their products with simpler features. grandPad makes iPad-like tablets for the elderly with bigger icons and a bigger power button. The tablet, which provides a dozen basic apps, has senior-friendly features such as a magnifying glass to help read small text, a wireless charger since some users may forget to charge the tablet regularly, and a simplified "transportation app" to hail Lyft in a few clicks.

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"We need to make the technology sophisticated enough that it makes it look easy," said Dr. Kerry Burnight, a former professor of geriatrics at UC Irvine who now serves as chief gerontologist for grandPad. "It's not dumbing down; it's the opposite."

ElliQ and grandPad focus their apps on keeping older adults socially and mentally engaged by providing easy video calls or playing music playlists to improve one's mood and decrease stress.

French startup Cutii, with its eponymous personal robot, seeks to connect older adults through organized activities and exercises arranged by the robot, said founder Antoine Bataille.

Yet even with robots designed to help the elderly stave off social isolation, doctors still say the human touch is the best medicine.

"There is no substitution for in-human connections," said Perissinotto. "Even if you use technology, it should be only as a supplement."

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