Wearable Tech for the Elderly

Mobile World Congress launches seem to be all about slimmer, sleeker, smaller and shinier. But there’s one stand where big buttons and rubber grips are all the rage. Emporia is here showing off a range of phones designed for older users–not in a patronizing, blue-rinse-color way, but to include features that take into account natural changes as we age.

“It’s a very fine balance,” says Ian Hosking, a senior research associate at the Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge. “It’s about being accessible, without being stigmatizing.”

His team has created accessories to allow your average tech reporter to empathize with the issues often experienced by older tech users. Goggles recreate blurry vision, and some gloves, which look like they could be part of Lady Gaga’s next stage outfit, recreate the weaker grip. Swiping a super-sensitive touchscreen becomes impossible, and the send button on an iPhone disappears completely – even though the text size has been increased. By comparison, the Emporia flip phone is an icon of clear, straightforward visibility.

“The problem is stereotyping” and alienating the consumers who would benefit most from an accessible mobile phone, Mr. Hosking says. It’s not about dumbing down smartphones–it’s just about adjusting the interface to get to the information. It’s also about adding on accessories which don’t cramp baby boomers’ style. Forget the big white-and-red emergency-call button on a string around one’s neck. Emporia has a neat, black watch with discreet silver buttons for the user to press to call an emergency number if they have a fall. Likewise, there’s one phone that comes with an accelerometer, which knows when its owner has had a fall–and GPS tracking to convey their location.

With wearable tech, from the Pebble to Google GOOG -0.70%glasses, creating a buzz, it’s worth remembering there’s more to it than showing off one’s running times with a Facebook FB +0.43%app. Some devices could be, literally, lifesavers.

By Frances Robinson

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