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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Tech, Finance Firms Focus on Aging Boomer Market


Dr. Neil Charness is in his late 50s, and knows a lot more about technology than many people his age. But ask him to install software on his computer, and he'll probably make a mistake imputing the 16-digit serial number usually required in the process.

"Like many people, I always miss one of the numbers, and have to start all over again," said Charness, "and I'm certainly not that deteriorated yet!"

He says those long codes are unnecessary for good security and difficult for older computer users.

Charness, a psychology professor at Florida State University, studies ways to improve technology design, especially for older people. He wants to make technology more accessible to everyone, but especially to individuals losing their memory, their vision, hearing, and other capabilities that tend to deteriorate with age.

It's not just the academic or human services community that's thinking about these issues. As the first wave of baby boomers prepares to turn 60, many tech companies are starting to realize what a more senior-oriented focus could mean to their bottom line. For one thing, today's seniors constitute one of the richest segments of the U.S. population, with more personal wealth than any previous generation. And the size of this group is growing. The number of Americans age 64 to 85 is expected to double in the next 25 years, says the U.S. Census Bureau.

Charness says that 20 years ago, tech companies paid little heed to the older population. The age group made up a small portion of the market. That's changing.

"Because there is now a significant number of older adults using the technology, and in a position to buy products, manufacturers and designers are starting to pay attention to them," he said.

Some tech companies have already stepped up to the plate. Voice recognition software, which transcribes spoken words onto a computer, helps older people and anyone who can't use a keyboard. IBM recently developed a computer mouse adaptor that helps people suffering from hand tremors eliminate excessive cursor movements. A product called ZoomText, created by privately held Ai Squared, Inc., in Manchester Center, Vt., enlarges text and images on computer screens up to 16 times for people with impaired vision. One version of the software reads information pointed to by the mouse, and announces program events as they occur.

Some seniors, particularly those with arthritis or hand injuries, can't use a mouse at all. SmartNav, developed by privately held NaturalPoint, in Corvallis, Ore., uses an infrared camera to track the movements of a reflective dot placed on the user's forehead. (Alternatively, the user can opt to wear a special cap or glasses equipped with the same reflective material.) This lets people move a cursor and navigate a computer with their heads, rather than with a mouse.

"For older people not trained in using a computer, SmartNav makes the navigation more intuitive" said NaturalPoint co-founder Jim Richardson. "You just look where you want the cursor to go, and it goes there.

"Obviously that market is going to go away as more people become trained in using the computer, but then we'll be dealing with people who have arthritis, carpel tunnel and other injuries, or whose hands have just been burned out from years and years of mousing."

While some companies eye the boomer market, others target products for people aged 80 or older.

People are living longer, and more are active into a much later age. They want to maintain their independence, but are hampered by various ailments. One problem is macular degeneration, a condition of deteriorating eyesight that often leads to legal blindness.

"People are outliving their vision," said Andrew Chepaitis, president of New York-based ELIA Life Technology. "The number of severely visually impaired seniors is projected to double by 2030."

The privately held company has been developing and testing a new raised alphabet, shown in university studies to be much faster to read tactilely than both the raised Roman alphabet and Braille. ELIA is also working on a tactile computer keyboard that incorporates the characters of the new alphabet, and a printer that produces raised text. Both of these should be available by next year.

The company also is developing a tactile, refreshable computer display that will use protracting and retracting pixels.

William Gribbons, founder of the Design and Usability Testing Center at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., advises companies on how to make their technology more accessible for older users and others. Gribbons sees technologies like screen magnifiers and mouse/keyboard alternatives as positive steps forward, but says that, in general, few industries recognize the advantages of designing for the senior market. He points to two exceptions, health care and financial services.

"The burden placed on our health care system is disproportionately coming from the older population," he said. "So that industry is looking at many different ways to manage health care, using technology to try to drive costs down."

He points to doctors who send daily e-mails that remind patients to take pills, communicate test results, or simply ask patients how they're feeling. "It's a simple way to use technology for a daily checkup, rather than waiting for their regular checkup, when it could be too late." Gribbons said.

Also, financial service firms are beginning to devote entire departments to creating easier access for older customers, he says. That means making significant changes in Web sites, phone systems, and other customer service systems, so they're more user-friendly to older adults.

"These firms look at their client population, and see the size of this baby boomer population moving toward retirement. They look at the net worth of these people and realize the tremendous benefit to servicing them," Gribbons said. "Financial services, in particular, is one industry that doesn't feel like they're being forced into it. Rather, they recognize it as a big business opportunity."

Search for previous IBD articles on this topic in the IBD Archives.

Read about innovative companies with promising futures in The New America.

Discover emerging trends in the medical sciences with Health & Medicine.

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