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Where are you when you need help -- a Panasonic pilot error

Another day, another idea from Japan on how to help seniors be and feel safe(r) -- this time from Panasonic. The aging wave or 'silver market' in Japan (22% are 65+) is the fastest growing segment and has prompted numerous corporate experiments on how to care for (or at least keep tabs on) people who have no nearby family.

Connect to a call center. One in four people in the rural town for the pilot, Iwamizawa, has hit retirement age: 26.7 percent are older than 65, above the national average of 22.7 percent. "In Iwamizawa, the less elderly are supporting the more elderly," says Hayashi Ito of Panasonic's Tokyo R&D Center in Tsunashima. So as part of an overall town RFID sensor network -- used initially for tracking children -- senior residents in the trial project are each assigned a social worker, given a small device that enables the social worker to call them or for them to call in to the call center. Their whereabouts are tracked when they pass by one of the 40 different RFID readers placed around town, part of Panasonic's Ubiquitious Sensor Network.

VoIP connection enables pressing a button to talk in an emergency. The pilot device has 100 hours of battery life and enables a two-way conversation with the call center when a button is pressed. But if a long-distance child wants to talk to the wearer, this device doesn't support it; they have to call the call center to find out where they are. This line caught my eye: "Panasonic's engineers were concerned that the elderly might not be as comfortable using the feature-loaded phones with tiny keys that their grandchildren carry everywhere."

Sigh - not only doesn't this idea scale, but it's wrong-headed. First, let's mull over assigning a social worker to every individual carrying a portable device, staffing a tracking call center that can be contacted by adult children worried about a relative's whereabouts. Does that scale and for how much money? Next, tiny-button cell phones? Huh? Not much searching required to check out the world's largest touch-screen phone launched in Japan in February. Thankfully, next year, they're going to try out putting the RFID tag on 3G cell phones. Whew. Maybe then out-and-aboutseniors and their adult children can chat...

Assumptions are static, people are not. This article and many product briefings I hear have a not-so-positive characteristic in common: a technology vendor's product marketers based a design on perceived unwillingness of seniors to use a technology, whether it is a cell phone, a computer, or the Internet.  This assumption is evident in the proprietary telehealth device industry and sensor-based activity monitoring as well. Nielsen's recent announcement about seniors and the Web is a case in point: in the past 5 years, the number of seniors actively using the Internet has increased by more than 55%, with the number one destination, Google Search, getting 10.3 million unique visitors in November. If a product was designed 5 years ago based on one assumption, maybe the next time a vendor is tempted to use that as a rationale, they'll pause and wonder if it's still true.

 

 

 

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