What’s News: Helping Seniors Helps Everybody

People in their mid-40s and younger sometimes get fed up with hearing about the “baby boomers” (the wave of people born in the period after World War II up until the early 1960s). It seems that their whole lives theyíve heard about how the baby boomers shook up the world, started new trends, and are the most important demographic to marketers.

Now the post-boomers are finally starting to benefit from some of that boomer-focused mentality. With the aging of the baby boomers, product developers are starting to realize that thereís money to be made by making products more user-friendly to older people. And often, that increased user-friendliness helps everyone.

A few examples:

  • One of the first things to go with age is crisp vision. Yet at the same time millions of people are wondering where they left their reading glasses, typical screen resolutions are increasing and words on most screens are getting harder to read. WebAnywhere (http://webanywhere.cs.washington.edu/wa.php ) is a web-based service that converts the contents of a web page to the spoken word. It works much like expensive screen-reader technologies, but those are typically computer-based rather than browser-based, so if you don’t have your computer with you when you visit a web page, you’re out of luck. Admittedly, WebAnywhere’s voice is still pretty robotic and will, at this point, likely interest only those whose vision can’t be corrected with simple reading glasses, but it is moving in the right direction to become useful to a much wider range of people.
  • Another typical challenge of aging is memory loss. But it is not only seniors who have frequently been frustrated by their inability to find their keys, their uncharged cell phones, their wallets, or even their pets. One product designed to help meet that challenge is the Loc8tor (http://www.loc8tor.com/ ). Users attach tiny tags to anything they are worried about misplacing. Using radio frequency identification, the Loc8tor’s portable handset (which is about the size of a cell phone or, with their new version, a credit card), will guide you with both sounds and visuals to the missing item. If you lose the handset but can find one of the tagged items, you can press an optional “panic button” on the tag which will help you find the lost handset.
  • As debates rage over when drivers’ licenses should be taken away from seniors who may no longer be safe behind the wheel, insurance companies and auto manufacturers are well aware of the fact that there are a great many bad younger drivers too. So several technologies being incorporated into recent car designs aim to make cars safer for drivers (and passengers) of all ages. These include things like blind spot detectors (typically using radar technology, these systems light up the side mirror with warning signals when there is a car in your blind spot), lane departure warning systems (which warn the driver either visually, through sound, or through vibration of the seat or steering wheel if they are starting to drift out of their lane and have not indicated a turn using the turn signal), and adaptive cruise control (which slows your vehicle down if you get too close to another car.) Coming soon, I hope, is a system that slows down the car behind you if it gets too close!

Sometimes product designs go where least expected: the Honda Element was originally targeted at young, hip drivers, who, Honda thought, might be wearing ski gloves while driving to or from the mountains. So it had large knobs on the instrument panel that would be easy to manipulate, even in bulky gloves. It turns out that older folks were attracted to it too: the large knobs make life easier for people with arthritis.

Fundamentally, humans are all designed in a similar way, so products that make life easier for one group are likely to help others too.

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