Dundee award to aid 'silver surfers'

September 10, 2004

A Dundee University researcher has won a Royal Society of Edinburgh research award for a project to harness the power of computers to help old people who are lonely, housebound and fazed by technology.

Anna Dickinson said computers could be adaptable, powerful tools, enabling old people to keep in touch with family and friends when problems such as arthritis made letter-writing difficult, poor sight hampered reading and hearing difficulties restricted telephone conversations.

A computer can display text in any size and in any colour and can also "speak" it.

"It can get really difficult in a telephone call if you have to keep saying, 'Can you repeat that, please?' and eventually you get to the stage of not saying it. The computer can change the volume without shouting and can repeat things you didn't catch," she said.

Information can be input by writing on a notepad, typing, speaking or making a video.

But Dr Dickinson, a member of Dundee's division of applied computing, said that despite growing numbers of "silver surfers", most software was designed for young people who were experienced computer users.

Text was often too small, computer screens were at "precisely the wrong distance" for bifocal-wearers and systems were too complicated for someone who simply wanted to send a message.

"I'm just looking at [Microsoft] Outlook, and there's tons of stuff on the screen. If I weren't an experienced user, I wouldn't know what was important and what wasn't," she said.

Dr Dickinson will head a three-year project to find out from old people what kind of streamlined system would suit them best. This could result in a computer much smaller than the office standard.

Space in sheltered housing was often limited, and old people might want something they could store in a drawer, Dr Dickinson said.

Dr Dickinson is among more than 40 of the brightest young researchers in Scotland who have won funding from the latest RSE research awards scheme.

There are grants of more than £1.2 million for research of public benefit in areas such as healthcare, communications, energy and the environment, supported by bodies ranging from BP and the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland to the Scottish Executive and the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Dickinson is part of the Utopia (Usable Technology for Older People: Inclusive and Appropriate) consortium, which brings together Dundee, Abertay Dundee, Glasgow and Napier universities.

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