Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


  Background to the submission and an example of current research activity:

  Applied Computing at Dundee University is unique in the UK in having a large group (over 30 interdisciplinary researchers) who are researching into how C & IT can support older and disabled people. The University has also recently announced the Queen Mother Research Centre for Information Technology to support Older People. Most of the projects within the Centre are addressing specific requirements of older people, such as support for memory loss and dementia, detection of falling and other "dangerous" behaviour, lifestyle modelling, systems for non-speaking people, design of interfaces for older people, and most recently were the only non north American group to be funded as part of a joint Altzheimers Soc (USA) and Intel corporation research initiative. This project will investigate the use of digital television to assist carers of people with dementia by providing prompts for daily living.


  This project includes a consortium of computing departments in the Universities of Dundee, which is the lead institution, Napier, Glasgow and Abertay Dundee. It is funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council with the intention of assisting industry and commerce in exploiting the commercial opportunities opened up by these major demographic changes throughout the world.

  The aim of the project was to raise the awareness of industry that the stereotype of an older person, who is both poor and technophobic, is not true for the majority of older people. In the developed world many older people have relatively large disposable incomes, and it is not they who are techophobic, but technololgy which has not been designed to take into account their needs. In the West, the "Baby Boomer" generation have a greater tendency than previous generations to be determined to get what they want and to spend money to obtain it. Thus there is a large market potential. There are also legislative requirements in many countries concerning access for people with disabilities. Approximately 50 per cent of those over 65 have a significant disability and the Disability Discrimination Legislation in the UK requires that "reasonable adjustments" are made so that people with disabilities can use equipment and access services. The US and other countries have similar legislation. Thus ignoring the needs of those older people with disabilities can leave a company open to legal challenge.

  Although many older people have a significant disability, older people present a different challenge to designers than young disabled people. Information Technology for disabled people has tended to be focussed on young disabled people with a single disability. In contrast, older people all have multiple minor impairments of varying degrees—these will include, for example, poor eyesight hearing and memory, and increased stiffness in joints. Thus an older person's functionality may be reduced on a number of dimensions and this functionality will gradually decline as the person gets older. There is also a greater possibility of a sudden or rapid decline in functionality as people age. It is important to realise that, when using technology, these impairments can interact, thus the simple replacement of one modality (eg vision) for another (sound) may not be effective if the user has poor hearing as well as impaired sight. Finally, older people may have a different range of needs and wants than younger people. For example, they may be less inclined to set aside a long period of time to learn to use something of limited value to themselves than younger people.

  C & IT products can be used to enhance the later stages of life in a number of ways. For the "fit" elderly, such systems can be used not only for providing a wide range leisure pursuits, but also technology which has been designed for the older user can be used significantly to extend economically active life. Whereas the frail elderly could use purpose designed C & IT equipment to reduce social isolation, to support memory and daily living. Such systems could also provide valuable support for the carers of frail older people, many of whom are elderly themselves. The UTOPIA project has developed a knowledge base, and substantial experience of working with older people and technology. Its aim is to disseminate this to developers, as well as to provide specialised services for those who wish to design C & IT systems for older people. To ensure that this advice is pragmatic, the project is grounded in a number of case studies examining particular aspects of design for older people. These case studies are:

    —  Artificial companions;

    —  Context aware Navigation Aids;

    —  Games technology;

    —  Messenger systems for help with technology.

    —  Older peoples' characteristics and their relationship with technology;

    —  Interface design; and

    —  Internet portals for the excluded.

  Other projects within Applied Computing at Dundee University include:

    —  Computer Based Reminiscence, conversational support, and entertainment for people with dementia;

    —  Fall detection using video analysis;

    —  Gesture recognition for those who cannot use standard interfaces;

    —  Memory Aids using PDAs and mobile phones

    —  Accessibility of web sites

    —  Accessibility of "Accessibility options" for people with disabilities.

    —  Lifestyle modelling in a "smart house".

  All this research has shown that, when designing for older people, it is essential that there is a primary focus on potential users of the technology. This, however, is often not straightforward, as, for example, one may be trying to obtain information about a technology of which the older person has no experience. We are thus examining innovative ways of interacting with users, and ways to ensure that designers have a real empathy with older users. We want to achieve a situation in which both older person and developer are both acting in a creative mode—which we call "mutual inspiration". We have thus gathered together a cohort of over 200 older people, both individuals and groups from day centres and residential homes who have a diversity of experience with technology, and a range of specific impairments (eg mobility, hearing, vision, speech problems, poor dexterity and memory). We have examined a range of ways in which older people can be encouraged to discuss requirements for novel C & IT systems, and evaluate prototype systems. These include questionnaires and focus groups, but also more innovative hands-on facilitated discussions and workshops and one-to-one in-home visits. We have also developed some very effective drama methods which use theatrical techniques, in collaboration with professional script writers and actors to facilitate discussion of further technology.

  The aim of the UTOPIA project is to make an impact on the designers and developers of C & IT systems in Scotland.

    —  To raise awareness of the opportunities and challenges of an ageing population.

    —  To change attitudes of mind to what older people need and want from Information Technology.

    —  To provide a frameworks for checking accessibility, effectively and efficiently.

    —  To introduce a revised pragmatism which is sensitive to the needs and wants of older people without producing systems which are totally unsuitable for the rest of the population.

  An important message from the project is:

    —  If you design for older and disabled people, you could be designing for everyone, but if you design for young fit people you will certainly exclude many.

  This research will also form part of the recently announced Inclusive Design 2, EPSRC funded project with the Universities of Dundee, Cambridge, York and the Royal College of Art in collaboration with the Design Council.

September 2004

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