constantine_stephanidisby Constantine Stephanidis

The continuous growth of the older population in Europe and worldwide calls for new technological solutions for improving the health, independent living, quality of life, and active ageing of older citizens in the Information Society.

Recent advances in ICT have great potential for meeting the needs of older people and help them stay healthier, live independently for longer, counteract reduced capabilities due to age, and remain active for longer.

Still, today the majority of older people in Europe do not yet enjoy the benefits of the digital age. Vision, hearing, dexterity or memory problems may hinder older people's ability and willingness to adopt interactive technologies, thus preventing their active inclusion and participation in the Information Society.

In response to these opportunities and challenges, policy initiatives have been launched in Europe to create a favourable ground towards developing and deploying ICT technologies for aging. The "Ageing Well in the Information Society" Action Plan of the European Commission brings forward a package of measures targeted to foster a greater uptake of ICTs by Europe’s senior citizens. This action plan aims to improve the quality of life of elderly people, create new business opportunities for Europe’s ICT industry, and personalise health and social care. The main strategy pillars are raising awareness and building consensus among stakeholders, overcoming technical and regulatory barriers to market development, accelerating take-up, and boosting research and innovation to foster the emergence of innovative ICT-based products and services for Europe's ageing population.

Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) constitutes a fundamental research domain in which Europe is investing heavily. AAL refers to intelligent systems of assistance for a better, healthier and safer life in the preferred living environment and covers concepts, products and services that interlink and improve new technologies and the social environment, with a focus on older people.

The European Commission supports RTD in AAL through a dedicated action in the 7th Framework Programme and partial funding of the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Research and Innovation Programme, involving most EU Member States. Currently, a large number of European and national research projects take place in the field of AAL. These efforts are characterized by multidisciplinarity and technological innovation.

The AALIANCE project ("The European Ambient Assisted Living Innovation Alliance", funded within the 7th European Framework Programme, has elaborated a roadmap of AAL research challenges based on the identification of the needs of elderly people and of the necessary technological support. Three principal application domains are considered: (i) AAL for home and mobile support, including AAL for health, rehabilitation and care, personal and home safety and security, etc. (ii) AAL in the community, addressing social inclusion, entertainment and mobility; (iii) AAL at work, addressing the needs of older people in the workplace.

Enabling technologies for AAL include sensing, reasoning, actuation and control, communication, and interaction. The latter is particularly relevant in the perspective of making ICT for aging accessible and usable for the largest possible population and taking into account the requirements of older users.

AAL relies heavily on Ambient Intelligence (AmI) to provide seamless and unobtrusive (ie, natural) interaction in the human environment, thus radically moving away from more traditional assistive technologies towards Universal Access. While a wide variety of different technologies is involved in AmI, the underlying goal is to hide their presence from users or to smoothly integrate them within the surrounding context as augmented physical objects, rather than technological gadgets. The pervasiveness of AmI fosters the elaboration of new interaction concepts beyond current user interfaces, (eg the desktop metaphor), through embedding interaction in everyday objects and seamlessly integrating the physical and digital worlds.

However, the benefits of AmI and AAL environments can only be fully achieved and enjoyed if such technologies can guarantee seamless accessibility for diverse functional limitations due to age. The accessibility of such environments poses different problems and is more complex than the accessibility of desktop or web applications and services, as AAL environments do not simply introduce a new technology, but an integrated set of technologies.

Therefore, AAL environments cannot be made accessible through the applications of guidelines or the use of conventional assistive technologies, and multimodality and the availability of alternative interaction techniques become key features towards supporting personalised accessibility.

Although several interaction technologies, such as voice output, are already widely available, and other, such as eye-tracking, are reaching a maturity stage where they can be robustly exploited for accessibility purposes, a number of fundamental research challenges need to be addressed towards the provision of accessibility solutions in AmI and AAL environments:

  • Knowledge of user requirements. Age-related factors are crucial, and the current understanding of the interaction requirements of older users in complex technological environments is limited.
  • Ready-to-use accessibility solutions supporting alternative interaction techniques. Most available assistive technologies are limited to specific devices, and cannot be easily made compatible with complex environments including a variety of devices.
  • Architectural frameworks supporting the integration and management accessibility solutions.
  • Tools supporting the development lifecycle of accessible AAL environments (eg requirements analysis, design and prototyping, evaluation).

Addressing these fundamental issues is a necessary step towards further developing AAL technologies so that they have the potential to support older people in everyday life and be widely adopted and used in practice.

Constantine Stephanidis, Director, ICS-FORTH

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