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Updated: September 8, 2009 00:09 IST

Electronics reach out to both ends of age spectrum

Kevin J. O’Brien
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In this July 5, 2008 photo an elderly person demonstrates a prototype of Honda's new walking assist device designed for the people whose leg muscles are weakened. The very young and the elderly have never been target markets for high-tech companies. The downturn has forced companies to apply cutting-edge technology to the often-neglected extremes.
AP
In this July 5, 2008 photo an elderly person demonstrates a prototype of Honda's new walking assist device designed for the people whose leg muscles are weakened. The very young and the elderly have never been target markets for high-tech companies. The downturn has forced companies to apply cutting-edge technology to the often-neglected extremes.

Engineers at a research institute in the Netherlands have programmed two robots — Nao and iCat — to teach young children to avoid overeating and to remind them to take life-saving medications, like insulin.

Emporia Telecom, an Austrian cell phone company, has expanded production since T-Mobile, the largest German mobile operator, began selling its TalkPremium model for seniors. The phone has a large keypad and is built for voice- and text-messaging.

The very young and the elderly have never been target markets for high-tech companies, which focus instead on the global mainstream. But with the economic downturn reducing growth, companies are applying cutting-edge technology to the often-neglected extremes of the consumer spectrum.

“Targeting technology to the very old and the very young is a fast-growing field,” said Mark Neerincx, a professor of man-machine interaction at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “This is going to be a big business.”

Seniors are now more willing to spend money on technology that enhances their lives, said Levent Bektas, the head of sales for DSC-Zettler, a maker of large-button mobile and fixed-line phones in Petershausen, Germany.

“We are seeing much more demand than 20 years ago,” Bektas said.

Doro, a maker of senior-friendly cell phones in Lund, Sweden, is using panels of elderly consumers to test its devices.

Emporia has had success with its TalkPremium for seniors.

“It’s been selling very well for a year,” said Roland Meyer, the head of employee training in Germany for Emporia. “The elderly are growing in number and have money to spend.”

Even Nintendo’s Wii, a video game designed for the mass market, has caught on with seniors in the United States who are using simulations like bowling for diversion and low-impact exercise.

“The Wii is a hit at a lot of U.S. senior centres,” Alwan said.

Twenty per cent of Germany’s 82 million residents are 65 years old or older, according to the U.S. Population Reference Bureau. That compares with 13 per cent in the United States. Worldwide, 8 per cent of the global population, or 544 million people, is 65 or older.

By 2050, the world’s elderly will grow to at least 10 per cent of the population, or more than 1.4 billion people, according to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

Philips has shifted its focus to the other end of the age spectrum. At the TNO research institute in Delft, Philips has developed the iCat, which, along with the Nao, developed by Aldebaran Robotics of Paris, has been programmed to appeal to the young.

The robots, about two-feet tall, can see and talk, and mimic empathy by moving facial features. Both have been successful in studies at building emotional ties with young children, said Neerincx, a researcher on the project.

Philips is applying some of the fruits of that research to Sonicare for Kids, an electric toothbrush designed to teach 4- to 10-year-olds to brush their teeth. The oscillating brush beeps every 30 seconds for two minutes.

The audible reminders are supposed to encourage children to brush for a full two minutes and to help parents monitor that the job has been done, said Hubert Grealish, a Philips product manager. The brush also has a rectangular rubber grip to let children lay it down while applying toothpaste.

Samsung, the world’s largest consumer electronics maker, introduced a mobile phone called the Corby, which the company said represented its revamped focus on the youth market. The handset, which comes in a variety of loud colors, has integrated links to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and other popular social networking sites.

“The Corby continues Samsung’s history of developing new products and technologies for specific audiences,” said J.K. Shin, an executive vice president who heads Samsung’s mobile division. “We see strong growth opportunities in this sector.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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