Our population is getting older but our technology is designed for the young – creating a very obvious problem. Some innovative technologists are, however, addressing this situation with smart homes designed for the elderly.
Interaction designer, and former software engineer, Kevin Gaunt points out that our homes of the future are not all "picturesque Airbnb-style houses inhabited by attractive people who effortlessly interact with technology, dealing with all our chores and reading our deepest wishes before we are even aware of them", as smart home marketing may sometimes suggest.
In his graduate project at the Umeå Institute of Design’s Interaction Design in Sweden, Gaunt imagined a series of smart home bots aimed at helping the elderly.
What might immediately appear to be both challenging, technologically, and full of potential pitfalls, socially, is actually designed with such problems in mind. Gaunt seems to suggest that technology does not need to be perfect, or that failures make home systems more natural. "As these bots ultimately try and quite possibly sometimes fail to do the ‘right’ thing, I see our relationship with this technology changing to something more alike having pets at home," explains Guant.
This project is highly conceptual, not meant to be taken directly to the market but instead to pose thought-provoking questions about the relationship we have with technology. This is especially true of technology in the home, as we discussed in our recent article on smart home assistants, but particularly interesting to consider with elderly users.
When considering the rate of technological change; we are designing technology for millennials who have never known a world without the Internet and touch screens, however a large portion of the population grew up in a world where black and white television was the height of home innovation. Gaunt suggests that elderly users may not just be an interesting market but could even lead smart home market adoption.
"Bots, AIs, and conversational interfaces have become a huge trend in design recently. As new technologies arrive, we tend to assume that—as in the past—younger generations will be the early adopters. But quite honestly? As chips and production costs become cheaper, and technology in our everyday objects become more ubiquitous, maybe this won't actually be true," says Gaunt.
While Gaunt brings some new ideas to the table, smart home applications designed for the elderly is not a new concept. In Singapore, the three-year SHINESeniors project seeks to increase the safety, privacy and independence of older people. Researchers installed motion sensors in 50 one-bedroom apartments to detect “unusual periods of inactivity” that could suggest a fall or health problems. Panic-buttons, or Personal Emergency Response System (PERS), were also set up to allow elderly residents to quickly call for help during an emergency.
“Most of the elderly prefer to be living by themselves rather than living in an assisted living facility,” explained Singapore Management University’s associate professor Tan Hwee Pink. None of the original participants dropped out of the project that finished this year, in fact many participants even recommended it to their friends. “What touches me most is to hear from the elderly that the system makes them feel safe,” said Dr Tan.
Research projects testing smart home systems for seniors also have huge ramifications for the disabled and anyone with special needs. Some applications may be ubiquitous within these groups and others may be custom designed to meet the needs of the individual users. Then consider that, while we may not all have “special needs” we all have unique needs and preferences, suggesting that the results of projects for the elderly could feed into the customization of smart homes for anyone.
The world’s population is ageing: virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population, according the UN World Population Ageing report.
The report predicts that ageing population “is poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century, with implications for nearly all sectors of society, including labor and financial markets, the demand for goods and services, such as housing, transportation and social protection, as well as family structures and intergenerational ties.”
Smart homes for seniors not only make the life safer and more comfortable for elderly people, but also reduce the strain on our hospitals, care services and our economy as a whole. If smart home projects for seniors achieve what they set out to achieve, they may become one of the most influential and significant elements of our emerging, smart, built environment.
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