2006 Conference General Sessions



Guy Dewsbury
Computing Department, Lancaster University
Infolab 21,
South Drive, Lancaster, LA1 4WA

Tel: 001-44-7752-892735
Email: g.dewsbury@lancaster.ac.uk

Website: www.smartthinking.ukideas.com

An increasing concern with modern society is that the rise in technology has empowered and supported those people who have been able to take advantage of the available technologies, whilst leaving the remainder technologically alienated and isolated (See Richard Adler -

http://www.seniornet.org/php/default.php?PageID=6694). One group for whom this is certainly a
possibility is older adults. This paper reports on the work being undertaken at Computing Department at Lancaster University in the UK where some software is being developed to enable seniors to communicate informally with each other for example their friends and families through a computer without the complexity associated with traditional computing platforms.

The Department of Computing is renowned for having a multidisciplinary staff membership consisting of computer experts and social scientists. This multidisciplinary mix has proven extremely successful in a number of software developments and has recently been focused on developing assistive technology and ‘smart homes’ for senior and disabled people as well as CATCH- a Compendium of Assistive Technology Checklists for the Home, for professionals to determine technology requirements for supporting independence in the home (www.smartthinking.ukideas.com/CATCH.html).  

The social component of the team was sent to undertake ethnographic field studies with seniors in their own homes. A number of new methods were piloted and adapted to achieve this task.


The social scientists’ have worked with a many older adults throughout the UK and allowed them to determine their own technology requirements. As a result of our fieldwork, it was uncovered that the seniors were less concerned with high-end technology, such as smart homes, and more concerned with mundane actions and activities such as cleaning their homes and being isolated for much of the time.


Many participants explained this isolation was due to family and friends not visiting or having passed away. Many of the older adults found that at weekends they could be alone all weekend. On further investigation expanded such that some older people could spend up to a week without seeing another person socially. Many participants had circumnavigated this by employing people to come in to their homes and clean or do other jobs, which provides some level of company at a price, but many were still chronically lonely.

There was no obvious technology solution to preventing or alleviating isolation. Over many months of work with the older participants, it was agreed that some form of computer system that would illustrate when people were available to be contacted was required. The system should show who was on the network but there should be no obligation on the user to make contact if they did not want to.


Similarly we found in the fieldwork that many seniors were reluctant to make contact even with neighbors as they did not wish to cause bother them and did not wish for visitors themselves as this meant a lot of preparation beforehand. Communications, therefore, had to be informal, and not require the users to enter into more disclosure than they were happy to. For this reason cameras were ruled out as the seniors did not want to be seen by others although they would like to see the other people themselves.  

Further discussions provide the final details such that a ‘slate tablet’ computer was considered to be the best solution as it proves to be light, portable, requiring no additional buttons/keyboards and a has screen large enough for the participants to see the program properly. As traditional software is not overly user friendly it was decided that the Tablet would have its own software platform to sit on top of Windows XP, which would use the core features of Windows without allowing the users to interact with them.


The platform would enable almost immediate synchronous communication between the parties on the network. The software platform was developed to have a welcome screen called the Chooser, which showed who was logged on to the networked system and allowed users to post pictures and comments of themselves to entice communications with other users.


The Chooser also has a series of task buttons (the amount dependant on what programs are loaded). If a person wishes to instigate ‘chatting’ with another user they are required to click on the person’s active area and click on the ‘CHAT’ button using a pen-like stylus. This sends a message to the chosen party inviting them for a chat and giving them the option of accepting or rejecting the chat invitation. It also has a ‘time-out’ option for when the user is not actually available or does not respond in a timely fashion, so the user is not kept hanging on indefinitely waiting for a reply. If the chat is accepted then the two parties are able to write and draw whilst the other person can view and interact with the writing and drawing.

There are many other applications that we are developing for the platform including email / Internet access and photograph sharing options, but I turn to consider the development of a games application.  

As an icebreaker and a common shared experience games can support a means of obviating isolation.  

It is not required that one needs to know or like a person to play a virtual game with them and get enormous pleasure from doing so. Through consultations with the seniors in our participant’s group we were able to isolate some common elements of a potential game. The seniors enjoyed the connectivity of the Tablet computers and the synchronous writing and drawing functions. Whilst waiting for the other user with whom they are communicating to respond to a message the seniors would try to second guess what was about to be written or drawn. They contest the need to be pinned down to the rules of certain games, yet wanted to play cards with each other. There also proved to be little commonality between their knowledge of games and rules. They also wanted to chat with each other informally, sharing stories
and discussing news. We therefore used Skype (www.skype.com) to enable multiple voice transfers across the network.


The user is automatically logged into their Skype account which identifies them to other users and other computers on the network. The Tablet's have built in microphones and internal speakers although it is envisaged alternative input/output devices will be required.


The games platform allows the users to play any card game that they wish as it has no rules embedded in the software, it therefore requires the seniors to discuss and decide on the appropriate rules. Should confusions or accusations of incorrect play be voiced, it is down to the seniors to settle the dispute themselves and decide the appropriate way to play.

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions at this time, although we know the system works and that older people in the UK are enjoying using it. We are currently putting Broadband connections in to participant’s homes in order to undertake longer and more rigorous studies of its efficacy. A clear indication at this stage is that the systems will have much wider applications that its initial design specification. Moreover, the user interface is skinable, by which I mean it can be modified to the user’s preferences, be that color, font size, language etc.  It also is being piloted on Slate Tablets, but we are certain that it can be used on a standard PC using pen entry via a USB tablet. We can also its applicability for it being used on mobile phones and PDA’s in the future to allow grandchildren to play with the seniors, but from their own reference point.

This work was partially funded in the UK by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the DIRC Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration and partially funded by Microsoft Research as part of their ‘Create, Play and Learn’ collaborative research program.

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