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How Can Technology Be Best Used to Support the Needs of an Aging Society?

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How Can Technology Be Best Used to Support the Needs of an Aging Society?
  • Author(s)

    Yeh-Liang Hsu
  • Biography

    Professor Yeh-Liang Hsu received his PhD degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1992. He then became a professor at Yuan Ze University, Taiwan, where he has held many important positions including Secretary General and Dean of Academic Affairs. Professor Hsu directed his research interest in design to the field of gerontechnology, and established the Gerontechnology Research Center in 2003. He has chaired the 9th World Conference of Gerontechnology in 2014, and is concurrently Editor-in-Chief for “Gerontechnology,” the official journal of the International Society for Gerontechnology.

  • Academy/University/Organization

    Yuan Ze University
  • Edited by

    Yeh-Liang Hsu
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The Gerontechnology Research Center (GRC) of Yuan Ze University, established in January 2003, is a pioneering research center in the field of gerontechnology in Taiwan. GRC takes a design approach to gerontechnology, and has been designing technologies and products to provide practical solutions to the various problems of the aging society. Partnering with a bedding company, Seda Chemical Products, Seda G-Tech Co., Ltd was founded in April, 2016. Research prototypes developed by GRC are converted into WhizSeries smart living / IoT products, such as WhizPad (motion sensing bed mattress), WhizCarpet (motion sensing carpet), WhizTouch (IoT light and call button), and WhizConnect (IoT hub for BLE devices). The whole design process extending from creativity and prototypes in the university to actual products and sales represents the mission of GRC: to carry out a successful industrial and educational experiment in gerontechnology. 

Figure 1. The functions of the Greontechnology Research Center, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan
Figure 1. The functions of the Greontechnology Research Center, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan

1. Gerontechnology is about designing for people

Facing widespread population aging, it is only natural to consider applying technologies to provide positive solutions for maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of manpower and resources for the care of older adults. “Gerontechnology” is actually about designing for people, as defined by the International Society for Gerontechnology (ISG), “Gerontechnology: designing technology and environment for independent living and social participation of older persons in good health, comfort and safety.”

People are highly diverse; therefore Gerontechnology product/service design requires a broader view than technology alone. Understanding the users, the changes in physical and psychological conditions, the interaction with the environment and society, as well as understanding cultural and social differences, are all important design tasks. The scope of gerontechnology, health, housing, mobility, communication, leisure and work, is also based on the needs of older adults in daily living, rather than technology fields.

Gerontechnology research is only valuable if the research can be turned into real products for daily applications. After decades of development, there are many research projects and products aimed at helping older adults and their caregivers with technologies, such as home telehealth systems, wearable devices, home robots, smart living systems, etc. However, few of these technological products have been widely adopted for the care of older adults. There is a huge barrier to overcome, and the key problems to be solved are often design rather than technology issues.

2. The Gerontechnology Research Center of Yuan Ze University

The Gerontechnology Research Center (GRC) of Yuan Ze University (YZU), Taiwan, was established in 2003, and is the pioneering research institute in this field in Taiwan. As shown in Figure 1, the core of research for GRC is “Smart living, Internet of things, Gerontechnology.” GRC has developed an education program “YZU of Gerontechnology”, including an 18-hour, 1 credit design workshop, a 12-credit undergraduate program, and a 2-year master’s degree program. The aim of this transdisciplinary program is to provide students with transdisciplinary learning and real-world problems and experience. GRC is also in charge of editing two journals, Gerontechnology, the official journal of the ISG, and the Journal of Gerontechnology and Service Management published in Chinese to provide a platform to publish research in this field.

GRC is also active in industry-academia collaboration. However, it was Seda G-Tech Co. Ltd., a start-up company spinoff from GRC in 2016, which strove to make better products, that completely shifted the mindset of gerontechnology development from a technologist to a designer mentality. In design thinking, empathy replaces technology as the core of the design process. Familiar artifacts at home, such as beds, carpet, chairs etc., are designed into IoT/AI products. Older adults need not change their living patterns and behaviors, or learn how to use the technologies, but simply live in them.

3. Development of an AIoT senior care bedroom
One important goal in gerontechnology product development at GRC is to support the caregivers by providing them with information on the real-time status and long-term pattern of the older adult. In this regard, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are very powerful tools. Figure 2 shows the AIoT senior care bedroom developed by GRC. The “Whiz Series” homeware includes a motion sensing bed mattress (WhizPad) for sleep monitoring / leave bed alert, and motion sensing WhizCarpet for mobility monitoring / fall alert. WhizTouch is an IoT light / call button. A Bluetooth IoT gateway WhizConnect is developed to integrate commercial Bluetooth care products into the AIoT bedroom. Again, the aim is to provide real-time status and event alerts as well as long-term health and living patterns of the older adults to the caregivers via their mobile phone.
Figure 2. An AIoT senior care bedroom
Figure 2. An AIoT senior care bedroom
However, there have been some major issues promoting IoT care products for use in homes. For example, high monthly fees for home Internet service are not acceptable if the older adult is not using the Internet for other purposes. Connecting the IoT products to home Wi-Fi AP has been a major usability issue. Wi-Fi coverage is often poor in bedrooms, which presents another problem in the practicality of using IoT care products at home. Narrow band IoT, or NB-IoT can be the last mile for bringing IoT care products to homes. Care products with sim cards connect directly to the NB-IoT base station which can be used freely indoors and outdoors without subscribing to a home Internet service. The transmission cost is much lower too. 
Figure 3 shows the IT structure of the NB-IoT-based senior care bedroom. Centered around the NB-IoT-based WhizConnect, commercial Bluetooth healthcare products for measuring vital signs and environmental monitoring can be easily included into the IoT ecosystem. Whiz Series products implement edge AI for real-time event identification to avoid transferring high volumes of raw data to the cloud via NB-IoT. Amazon Web Service (AWS) is used for IoT and database services, and cloud AI (Amazon ML) is applied for living pattern recognition. Caregivers receive alerts or can check on the status of the older adults from their mobile phones. For collaborating companies, we also prepare API for cloud to cloud communication. 
Figure 3. IT structure of the NB-IoT-based senior care bedroom
Figure 3. IT structure of the NB-IoT-based senior care bedroom
4. Summary
The mission for GRC is to “carry out a successful industrial and educational experiment in gerontechnology.” We try to achieve this mission using a design approach. For us, “design” is a problem-solving process which starts with a problem and ends with a solution. In this design approach, we, engineers, caregivers, even older adults themselves, are all designers. The purpose of gerontechnology is not technology, but people. 


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