Project bridges digital divide between seniors and smart home technologies

Photos: Emerging Technologies Research Lab team. © Emerging Technologies Lab 2021.

From digital voice assistants to automated ‘smart’ lights and robotic vacuum cleaners, readily available off-the-shelf smart home devices can support the wellbeing and independence of older Australians, as identified by new research.

As part of the The Smart Homes for Seniors project, a group of researchers from the Monash University Emerging Technologies Research Lab and Deakin University, in partnership with McLean Care, evaluated the benefits, opportunities and challenges of incorporating smart home devices into the homes and lives of older people living in regional communities.

The research involved participant insights, electronic data from the devices showing participants' usage patterns, user reviews and end-of-trial surveys.

From the findings researchers were able to identify the usability challenges, expectations, as well as the hopes and anxieties older people have of smart home devices in assisting them to live more independently and to improve their overall wellbeing.

Older people are a marginalised demographic when it comes to the design of smart home devices and are often underrepresented in user studies. Despite the many benefits smart home devices can offer the elderly population, many older Australians are increasingly concerned about being left behind in the digital age, highlighting the need for proactive policy and research initiatives to help bridge this gap.

Monash University Project Lead, Associate Professor in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab, Yolande Strengers

As part of this study, the researchers identified a number of recommendations to equip older people and bridge the digital divide.

These recommendations included, offering smart home devices as optional extras for in-home services, providing opportunities for learning to gain digital living skills, providing affordable and reliable internet services, and designing and installing smart home devices that support older people’s independence, mobility and memory.

“The Smart Homes for Seniors project was designed to address the research and knowledge gaps relating to older people’s use of smart home technologies. We want this project to dispel the stereotypes around older people's interest and capacity to engage with emerging technologies,” Associate Professor Strengers said.

“Through our ethnographic research we were able to understand how smart home devices could support older people’s wellbeing and their ability to live independently. Our field work also identified certain challenges older people experienced when using smart home devices.”

McLean Care, Chief Executive Officer Sue Thomson, explained how the unique combination of ethnographic and technical research offered through this innovative collaboration sets this project apart from many others.

“The Smart Homes for Seniors project is a testament to how an effective industry-research partnership can work to shed light on areas of emerging opportunity at the intersection of person-centred care, and the field of assistive technologies,” said Mrs Thomson.

Associate Professor Ben Horan from Deakin University’s CADET Virtual Reality Training and Simulation Research Lab explained how the technical research revealed complementary insights about how older people use smart technologies.

“Our team recorded usage data from the devices to identify how often they were used, at what times, and using what functionalities. We were also able to understand the kinds of voice requests and challenges with voice activation that older people faced when engaging with Google Home functions,” he said.

“Participants were given the opportunity to have fun with the smart home devices, make mistakes and take their time to learn each function with technical support of the project team, creating an ideal learning environment.”

The Monash University Emerging Technology Research Lab research team consisted of:

This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Health through a Commonwealth Home Support Program Innovation grant.

Learn more about the Smart Homes for Seniors project, or access the Final Report.

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