URBANA — Today's smartphones and tablets are easier to use than computers in the past, but they still have a ways to go, especially for the elderly.
To address this, researchers at the University of Illinois have partnered with Clark-Lindsey Village to study how seniors handle today's technology.
Nancy Curran, who's been a resident for a little over a year, participated in a study where she tried using the Amazon Dot smart speaker and the Amazon Echo Show smart display at an apartment at Clark-Lindsey.
"One of the things they initially said to me was, 'I want you to challenge Alexa,' and so what I said was, 'Alexa, play Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.' She didn't, so then I changed it to Water Music by Handel, and I got that."
She's also participated in a study where she was observed preparing a meal in the apartment.
The director of the UI program running these studies, Wendy Rogers, said technology is not as easy to use as it should be.
"I don't think it's necessarily well designed for anybody, but I think it's getting better. People are paying more attention to usability issues," she said.
Rogers came to the UI in January 2017 from Georgia Tech and has 25 years of experience developing technology for older adults.
She started the UI's Collaborations in Health, Aging, Research, and Technology, or CHART, program, and soon after she arrived, she met Clark-Lindsey CEO Deb Reardanz.
"We started talking about ways we might collaborate and came up with the idea of leasing one of their apartments as research space," Rogers said.
Reardanz said the partnership makes sense for Clark-Lindsey.
"We have a natural affinity to the University of Illinois because of how many retirees we have and because of our mission to be a leader in the field of aging services," she said. "So we knew that in order for us to stay up on what is coming down the pike in research and innovation, we needed to be partners with people who are looking at that all the time."
The CHART apartment started in June 2017, and five studies are in progress at the space, from usability testing of a smartphone app that detects fall risk to studying virtual reality for neurorehabilitation.
Rogers said it's important to conduct studies in a real-world environment.
"Assessing the usefulness and usability of technology in contexts they'll be used is very useful," she said. "In a lab space where everything works perfectly, you don't really get a good assessment of whether they can use it in their own apartment."
Brian Pastor, the program's coordinator, said having the lab space at Clark-Lindsey helps get more seniors involved in the research.
"We have a lot of older adults who will say, 'One, I don't want to come on campus because of traffic. Two, I don't want to come to campus because I don't want to be in a lab setting,'" he said. "It's best to do it in a comfortable environment so you're not adding extra stressors."
The research is also often useful to the person participating, Pastor said, unlike traditional research that takes time to go from the lab to the real world.
"This is testing in a real environment, so there's no translation at all. It's just immediately applicable," he said.
He also said having a number of retired UI researchers at Clark-Lindsey has led to some useful feedback for the CHART researchers.
"They'll say, 'Well, you know, this isn't part of the study, but you could be doing this.' Which is great. That's a good thing," Pastor said.
The CHART apartment is set up like a regular living space, with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
This past week, Clark-Lindsey has also been installing a host of smart devices in it, from a smart thermostat to a smart drain sensor that will alert to leaks.
They're also putting strips of LED lights at the base of the bed, which will automatically turn on when they detect motion to help prevent falls when getting out of bed.
Clark-Lindsey is using the CHART apartment as a demonstration space for the new technology, and Reardanz said some of it may eventually end up in residents' apartments.
"Some of this is early research, so it may take a while before it gets into the day-to-day life. But some of this stuff...with the coffee pots and automatic light-up strips are things that are going to be incorporated as a routine setup of apartments," she said.
And while some of the older residents aren't familiar with all the new technology, she said many of the newer residents are.
"We anticipate as new residents move in they're going to actually be comfortable with some of this technology already," Reardanz said.
And the goal of the research is to make technology more usable for everyone.
"Technology is typically developed for the younger generation and adapted for the older generation," Pastor said. "So our research is trying to flip that paradigm to have it developed for the older generation, and then add features for the younger generation because then it is completely universally accessible."