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Grandparents get their widgets on

Children and seniors demand many of the same things from their technology: They want it to work right away. They don’t want it to do a million things. And they need it to be secure.

“Both groups need simple things with less functionality and more protection,” said Robin Raskin, a former PC Magazine editor who founded twin conference sessions on technology for the two age groups at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show.

One example on display: Firefly’s cellphone, which has just four buttons and a central navigation wheel. Parents giving one to their children can control incoming and outgoing calls, and seniors can store phone numbers for quick dialing and get text messages that remind them to take their medications. Another trait the two groups have in common: Their use of technology is rapidly expanding.

The Times culled through the show to highlight trends in devices aimed at these groups.

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Remember when Grandma and Grandpa were confounded by the VCR? Today’s senior citizens are surfing the Web, gabbing on cellphones, Skyping with grandkids and firing up the Wii game console.

When it comes to technology, older Americans have done a cultural reboot.

“They’re doing things that 80-year-olds weren’t doing 15 years ago,” said Howard Byck, senior vice president for lifestyle products for AARP.

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The Consumer Electronics Show is hosting its inaugural Silvers Summit today, focusing on the intersection of baby boomers, their parents and technology.

The daylong seminar, with speakers from AARP, the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center, Qualcomm Inc. and Google Inc., includes a breakdown of just how gray we’re getting -- an estimated 1.2 billion people over the age 60 worldwide by 2025 -- and what the potential impact may be on technology and society.

“CES is always miles of aisles of stuff without context,” said Robin Raskin, a Silvers Summit co-founder. “Here is this market that is so ripe.”

Byck called it “a constant battle” to get the attention of retailers and advertisers. But they are starting to take note that as baby boomers gray, the golden years could take on a whole new meaning for marketers. Seniors represent 75% of this country’s wealth, AARP says, citing census data.

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Plus, the boomer demographic is relatively tech savvy. More than 7 million own gaming systems even though they aren’t parents, and 29 million own digital video recorders, according to AARP.

The senior-specific products pitched at CES run the gamut from advanced to stripped-down.

Halo Monitoring’s MyHalo strap is worn across the sternum and sends data on heart rate, temperature and other vital health functions to a wireless router that caregivers can access over the Web. If the user falls, calls for help automatically go out.

Then there are simple cellphones. Clarity, a Plantronics Inc. subsidiary, has made telephony products for people with hearing loss for about 30 years. When it came to making a cellphone recently, the company found its customers craved louder earpieces, bigger displays and fewer buttons.

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The result, Clarity’s C900, has four buttons on the front -- for answering or calling, hanging up and scrolling through contacts -- and a slide-out keypad. There’s no text messaging or Web surfing. But the phone does include a flashlight and an emergency button that alerts pre-determined contacts.

The Quality of Life Technology Center, a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is developing products 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. The technology center 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.

Though seniors get their own tech summit at CES, products oriented specifically toward them occupy only a small section of the show floor. But the summit’s founder said the growth potential could become too seductive to ignore.

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“Boomers are going to demand that these things are there -- for themselves and their parents,” Raskin said.

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michelle.maltais@latimes.com


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