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CES: Tech gets into gray matters

January 10, 2009 | 12:26 pm

A relationship with technology for many grandmas and grandpas used to mean being taunted by the VCR clock perpetually flashing noon. These days, seniors have cellphones, surf the Web, play games on the Wii and even maintain Facebook pages. Aging has had a cultural reboot of sorts.

Majd Alwan of CAST at CES Silvers Summit With technology becoming such an integrated -- and some say essential -- part of modern life across the generations in America, CES is featuring a daylong Silvers Summit today on the relationship between technology and aging.

Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, took us on a walk-through of what's available for seniors in the consumer electronics market today....

...Alwan breaks the offerings down into four categories: safety, health and wellness, communication, and "theraputainment" (the intersection of therapy, education and entertainment). Here are five products and services he pointed out:

Dakim BrainFitness 1. Dakim BrainFitness: This unit is truly plug and play. It's a self-contained touch-screen computer, with no keyboard or mouse. Everything is controlled by touching the screen; users are guided by auditory and visual cues. "Not all seniors have the manual dexterity to handle a mouse, and not all are tech savvy," Alwan said. The user goes through a series of "brain games," which include anagrams, memory challenges and a bit of math. They do require focus -- whether you are a senior citizen or not. You can click through a demo here.

2. Clarity C900 cellphone: "Can you speak up?" is possibly the most-asked question during cellphone conversations with seniors. Clarity has devised a phone Clarity cellphonethat goes up to 20 decibels and is stripped down and super simple to use, unlike many other wireless gadgets today.

Clarity President Carsten Trads spoke of his father fumbling with his cellphone. “Whenever I call him, I never know if he’s going to make a picture of the dashboard in the car or answer the phone,” Trads said. The phone front has a huge screen with a huge font and only four buttons. A keypad can slide out if the user needs to dial a number that's not in memory. The phone can store up to 200 numbers, Trads said. On the back of the phone is a red emergency button, which is recessed and has to be pressed for four seconds to avoid miscalls. A phone call is made joined by a text to predetermined contacts and will cycle through the list until a human being is reached.

Doro was another brand Alwan pointed out. "Both have done a good job of merging usability with aesthetic appeal," he said.

3. Paro Mental Commitment Robot: At first, the seal we saw looked just like a cute, cuddly baby harpParo pet therapy seal toy. But it's actually a theraputic tool. Pets can be great therapy, Alwan pointed out, but they require walking and feeding, and most hospitals and nursing homes don't often allow them because of the allergies, infections, bites and scratches they can cause.

The Paro has embedded sensors that respond with sound and movement to voice, touch and visual cues. The fur is made with antibacterial material. (Click here to see how it works.)

These robots are designed to have psychological (relaxation and motivation), physiological (improve vital signs) and social (opening communication among patients and caregivers) effects.

Speaking of robots, Alwan also mentioned the iRobot line of service robots, such as Roomba, as potentially useful in a senior's tech arsenal.

4. Integrated services and certifications: Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Intel are getting involved in answering the question of how to better connect people with their health and medical data Intel Health Guideand interconnect data-gathering products.

Alwan pointed out that there are services, such as GrandCare Systems, offering information integration, monitoring and communication. GrandCare also integrates memory games in their home-computer unit using pictures of the user's family, for instance.

Meanwhile, groups such as Continua Health Alliance are working to establish certification for interoperability among "telehealth" -- or telecom-enabled -- equipment and services.

5. Halo Monitoring: MyHalo, a personal monitoring and emergency response system, is a strap that's worn across the sternum. It sends data on vitals (heart rate and temperature, for instance) and activity to a wireless router. Caregivers can remotely access this real-time information over the Web. Halo Monitoring says there's also an iPhone app coming to let caregivers monitor loved ones both remotely and while mobile.

If the user falls, within eight seconds an alarm sounds on the router and alerts go out to the caregiver and an operator to send help. And the demonstration we got suggested the system can detect the difference between a stumble and a true fall.

The fact that the system automatically alerts remote caregivers of an emergency -- and of device removal -- dissipates some fear of seniors not calling for help. Sometimes, Alwan said, seniors are "Minnesota nice," afraid of disturbing the lives of loved ones, or they're afraid of having the incident lead to a move to a nursing facility.


In addition to the items currently being displayed at CES, engineers at the Quality of Life Technologies Center is developing some intriguing new devices that adapt to their users, including software that senses when a computer user is leaning closer to the screen so it can make the text bigger and navigation systems that learn their users' driving needs, habits and capabilities. QoLT is also developing a kind of backup brain system to help jog memory when the user can't remember the name that goes with a face.

"Technology fills the gap between intent and capability," said Curt Stone, director of the program that's commercializing the center's products.

-- Michelle Maltais

Top photo: Majd Alwan, director of Center for Aging Services Technologies, at CES. Credit: Isaac Brekken / For The Times

Second photo: The Dakim BrainFitness system uses games to stimulate the brain. Credit: Isaac Brekken / For The Times

Third photo: The Clarity C900 cellphone features a large screen and only four buttons on the front for easy navigation. Credit: Michelle Maltais / Los Angeles Times

Fourth photo: The Paro therapeutic robot is used as a substitute for animals in therapy in nursing homes. Credit: Isaac Brekken / For The Times

Fifth photo: The Intel Health Guide allows some simple medical testing to be done at home. Credit: Isaac Brekken / For The Times