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Tech for Older Consumers: The Voice of the Future is Calling Today

Janet Kornblum March 21, 2018
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Voice-controlled devices are gaining popularity with older adults, including many who have been put off by the complexity of earlier digital innovations.

There may be no real “Amazon Echo Silver,” as shown in a Saturday Night Live spoof of Amazon’s voice assistant.

But no joke: Alexa could be the wave of the future for older consumers.

“Voice First” technology, as Laurie Orlov, an authority on technology for seniors, calls it, “is a breakthrough” for people who have physical limitations such as low vision or problems with mobility. (See more from Orlov below.)

Controlling devices with voices rather than hands offers major possibilities for seniors to participate more fully in the tech revolution that until now has left many of them behind, particularly in the oldest age groups.

Technology doesn’t just have to be useful; it also has to work for people who came of age when machines ran on gears and hardware that you could see, feel and touch. While a child raised reading books on tablets and playing on mom’s smartphone feels at home in a digital world, older people never introduced to machines run on chips and code often lack the necessary skills.

Not everyone can use a mouse, but just about everyone can state a command.

And that’s the point.

Devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s HomePod, are inexpensive, intuitive and easy to use, Orlov, who is the founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, says in a recent report, “The Future of Voice First Technology and Older Adults.” (Scroll down for more on the report.)

The assistants are so promising that she calls them the “third era of technology,” with cellphones being the first and the Internet the second.

Older adults who have remained aloof to new technologies may find voice assistants easier to use than devices such as personal computers and laptops, experts say. You can find clear evidence for this at the Carlsbad by the Sea Retirement Community near San Diego, where some 80 residents are using Alexa in a pilot project.

“I’m just devoted to it,” says Corinne Sawyer, 94, a novelist and retired English professor, who uses voice commands to check the time, weather and news, keep her appointment calendar and set her thermostat. “I find it charming, interesting and useful.” She says Alexa now reads the Bible daily to a 100-year-old friend who has been contending with declines in her hearing and vision.

Voice assistants may still pose challenges for some. For instance, devices need to be connected to WiFi. And they do require some set up. Multi-unit senior housing may sometimes pose technical complications, such as if a resident wishes to integrate a device with a larger system.

But judging by the early adapters, voice is already enhancing quality of life for many who until now have assumed technology was mainly for their children and grandchildren.

Sawyer relies on Alexa to wake her up if she takes a snooze before a bridge game or while the laundry is running, and to communicate with her friends who also have devices. She finds it not only practical but an enjoyable addition to her daily life.

“I haven’t had this much fun since we were kids and strung a wire between two tin cans and played telephone.”

What makes Voice First special for older adults?

My blog has discussed the emergence of Voice First technology on multiple occasions. This marks the publication of a research effort and resulting report linked here called The Future of Voice First Technology and Older Adults 2018.

So what has inspired multiple organizations to begin their programs? They see that while Voice First technology is an early market with some [noted] limitations, it also represents, unlike prior technology generations, benefits for users.

—Laurie Orlov, Aging in Place Technology Watch

Janet Kornblum

Janet Kornblum is a writer, media trainer and private investigator based in Northern California. She has written about technology and culture for years and is hopelessly addicted to gadgets.

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