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Toward a Smarter Planet: Minding the Digital Gap for Our Aging Population

José De Jesús, Executive IT Architect, IBM Software Group (ISSW for IBM)

The Internet has had an enormous impact on almost every aspect of society. It has radically transformed the way we live, work, shop, communicate, and find information. Never before has information been so easily accessible to us, and yet, as much as the Internet enhances our lives, the "digital gap" between us and our aging population is widening. Studies show that most seniors do not process and interact with web content the same way as other segments of the population. As people age, they experience difficulties with vision, hearing, dexterity, and memory. Visual sensory systems as well as auditory, tactile and vestibular systems start to gradually decline. Even with important advances in assistive technology, browsers today do not lend themselves to be easily used and understood by the aging. It is no surprise why most seniors are apprehensive about computers, overwhelmed mainly by modernity but also by their inability to process so much information at one time. As human beings live longer, the problem is most certainly compounding.

No matter how much help hardware and software provide, an older user may not be able to effectively use a mouse to navigate through links or select text and images, much less effectively navigate a social network or virtual world. Technologies such as screen magnifiers, screen readers, sticky keys, and voice input are a good intermediate step, but to better serve our weakest and often forgotten members of society, web browsers must aggressively adopt new ideas. Assumptions about how things work, ranging from input devices to URL links and computer interaction require rethinking. Online users need more of an Internet Assistant that can sense hand movements, gestures, positions, facial expressions, and recognize spoken commands.

This is no longer science fiction. Some of the technology and necessary infrastructure are already in place. Most laptops today have built-in cameras, and some include face recognition software. Consumer-based devices such as Microsoft's Xbox Kinect (link resides outside of ibm.com) are allowing users to control and interact with a game console using gestures, body movements, and spoken commands.

IBM, too, has been doing extensive research in exploratory computer vision, natural user interfaces and immersive Internet and virtual worlds. In addition, IBM's groundbreaking research into how the brain works and commitment to accessibility research innovation are creating new pathways for increased usability for the aging population. These are just a few examples. Take a look at the many interesting articles in this site, dedicated completely to Human Ability and Accessibility. The amount of research IBM is doing in this area will certainly lead the way and contribute to our overall vision of a smarter planet.

Recent advances in sensors, 3D face recognition, biometrics, and voice recognition as well as more focused artificial intelligence technology will revolutionize the way we interact with computers. Given enough attention, a browser that closes the digital divide between us and our older generation could soon become a reality.

The idea of Internet Assistants rather than just browsers would be a win/win situation for everyone. It would not just address the needs of a smaller market segment, including that of people with disabilities, but would also open a new and exciting future for the way we all experience the Internet. Operating system and browser designers, take note: It is time to leverage and expand on these technologies. Rather than trying to enter http://www.facebook.com, tomorrow’s grandma may simply want to wave her hand to turn on the computer, point in the air to a picture on the monitor…and then speak her mind.

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