Assistive Technology

Lifelong Health and Wellbeing

Older people are accounting for an increasingly higher percentage of the UK’s population, with life expectancy rising at an unprecedented rate and predictions that by 2033, 25% of the population will be over 65 years old. The Lifelong Health and Wellbeing programme was set up in order to meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities presented by the ageing population. It is led by the Medical Research Council on behalf of the Arts and Humanities, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences, Engineering and Physical Sciences and Economic and Social Research Councils and provides a platform to fund and coordinate multidisciplinary research into ageing.

Among the project’s aims are:
• to target factors over the course of an individual’s life that may have a pronounced effect upon their health and wellbeing when they are older,
• to identify and develop effective interventions that lead to improved health and quality of life as people grow older,
• to inform the development of services and technologies to support independent living,
• to increase capacity and capability in ageing-relevant research.

Newcastle’s role concerns mental wellbeing in later life. We have developed a Wearable Acoustic Monitor, which measures the wearer’s level of social interaction. The premise of the design is that socialising with people is a vital aspect of our emotional wellbeing, while equally our emotional wellbeing can have an impact upon the degree to which we wish to socialise. For people with depression or other illnesses that may cause them to engage less with other people either voluntarily or involuntarily, monitoring social interaction can therefore be a good indicator of that person’s emotional wellbeing.

See also: Wearable Acoustic Monitor

Date: Jan 2012 – Aug 2013
Funding: MRC: Medical Research Council £247,327
Researchers: John O’Brien – Institute for Ageing & Health (PI),  Peter Gallagher, and Nicole Ferrier – Institute of Neuroscience, Jeff Neasham, and Satnam Dlay – Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering (CIs).  Patrick Olivier (Coll). Roisin McNaney, Bin GaoCas Ladha, Karim Ladha

Ageing in Place

Demographic ageing has raised many issues for policy and practice, particularly in terms of how society should best support and care for the ageing population. Governments around the western world have recommended that older people should be supported to ‘age in place’, in the belief that this will also promote quality of life and well-being in later life. There is also a policy focus on enabling older people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. While new technologies clearly have the potential to support independent living in the home for older people, it is less clear whether or not these technologies also promote a wider connection outside of the home. There is an increasing need, therefore, to critically look at the impact that technologies supporting ‘ageing in place’ have on the everyday lives of older people. It is important that the social and ethical implications that these technologies could have for older people are explored from a number of different perspectives, including those of older people, designers, social scientists and computing scientists.

This project funded social gerontology lecturer Katie Brittain to conduct a year-long discipline hop in the Digital Interaction Group in Culture Lab, and use this to forge new collaborations and build national and international links with experts in the design and development of emerging technologies for older people.

Date: Sept 2011 – Aug 2012

Funding: EPSRC: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. £81,484

Researchers: Katie Brittain – Institute of Health & Society (PI), Patrick Olivier.

SALT: Designing Scalable Assistive Technologies and Services

Currently, health and social care institutions struggle to meet the demands of the ageing population due to insufficient capacity and resources. The potential of new technology to assist older people and promote independent healthy living is huge. However, it is hindered by issues relating to, for example, cost, lack of technological skills among the older population, and difficulties in making people aware of what is available. This project aims to address some of these challenges and investigate opportunities for creating and promoting scalable assistive technology within economic and business models. It brings together multidisciplinary academics, businesses, health and social care professionals, third sector organisations and user representatives, as well as collaborating closely with SiDE.

The SALT project is split into seven distinct but interrelated work packages, two of which are managed by researchers within the Digital Interaction group. Work package 4, or “User Uptake”, focuses on the attitudes of older people towards assistive technology, providing a context within which the potential growth and usability of assistive technology can be maximised. Researchers will conduct interviews to assess the extent to which older people currently use or do not use available assistive technology, and the perception of how much or little it is needed among its intended users. Work package 5, or “User-Centred Design”, applies the findings of work package 4 and other branches of the project during design workshops for new assistive technology, particularly focusing on digital technology. It will use a range of experience-centred design techniques to create working prototypes in order to assess which participatory design methods are most appropriate in the development of assistive technology.

Press release: North East leads the way in planning for an ageing population

Date: Mar 2011 – Feb 2014

Funding: TSB: £ 1,083,831

Researchers: Feng Li – Business School (PI), Patrick Olivier, Peter Wright (CIs). Katie Brittain – IHS, Louise Robinson – IHS/IAH, Tracy Finch – IHS, Lynne Corner – IAH, Peter Gore – IAH, Rob Wilson – Business School.

Collaborators:  RTC North, Critical Data Ltd, DocoboLtd, ADL SmartcareLtd, Years Ahead, CybermoorServices Ltd, Age Concern Newcastle, Manus Neurodynamica Ltd, Limbs Alive Ltd, IntraHealthLtd.

Ambient Kitchen

The Ambient Kitchen is a platform for research in pervasive computing that was installed at Culture Lab in 2007. It is a proof-of-concept context-aware computing environment, originally designed to demonstrate the potential for technology to support older adults live independently for longer, but since developed to explore the role of context-aware computing to support healthier eating and also task-based language learning (i.e. learning a language through cooking). The application within the Ambient Kitchen that was developed to explore prompting of people with dementia preparing food and drinks was done is collaboration with Jesse Hoey (University of Waterloo) and Andrew Monk (then University of York but now a visiting professor at Newcastle University).


Sensing Technologies: The current version of the Ambient Kitchen uses RFID technology (embedded in the worktops and the cupboards), a pressure-sensitive floor (under the laminate flooring), multiple flat LCDs screens (behind tinted glass wall covering), and numerous wireless accelerometers embedded into specially adapted utensils. Through this sensing infrastructure the behaviour of users in the kitchen can be tracked and reasoned about.

utensils    knife

Collaborators: Jesse Hoey (University of Waterloo); Andrew Monk (University of York); Guangyou Xu (Tsinghua University).



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New Approaches to Banking for the Older Old

Although there are more people aged eighty and over in the UK than ever before, current banking systems fail to cater to them. It is now almost impossible to opt out of having a bank account, using a chip and pin, and transferring money digitally—things of which many people aged eighty and above have no experience. Beyond the difficulty inherent in adapting to new systems, people in this age group may not know how to use the internet, struggle to remember PIN numbers, or be unable to travel to banks to withdraw money. For many, therefore, the phasing out of old methods of cash handling is confusing and makes them feel (or actually causes) a loss of financial control.

In response to the obvious need for the banking system to do more to be inclusive of the eighty-something age group, the aim of this project was to design innovative, provocative digital technologies that would enable this group to handle their finances more easily and highlight the ways in which the current system is failing older citizens. We conducted semi-structured interviews with older people and representatives from the financial sector to learn about issues relating to ageing and finance. Eleven people aged eighty to eighty-seven were invited to take part in a series of participatory design workshops to develop prototypes for new approaches to banking that would address some of the issues raised.

Among the prototypes we developed were:

The Biometric Daemon, a secure PIN reminder,
Digital Cheques to better integrate the traditional cheque, popular among our interviewees, with modern banking systems.
Guardian Angel, an application that would enable people to give delegates restricted access to their money on their behalf.
Questionable Concepts, a provocative exploration of ideas about money-related scenarios.

Date: May 2010 – April 2012
Funding: EPSRC (Digital Economy Programme) £7,947 + £168,264
Researchers:  Patrick Olivier, Feng Li (Business School), Paul Dunphy, Isaac Teece, Dan Jackson,  John Vines, Cas Ladha, Stephen Lindsay, Karim Ladha, Rachel Phillips, Vasilis Vlachokyriakos
Collaborators: Andrew Monk (PI) (University of York) and John Clark , Mark Blythe (Northumbria University), Jayne Wallace (Northumbria University)
Partners: Alex Aldler (Barclays Bank), Lucy Malenczuk (Age UK), Bruce Davis (Zopa)

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Keeping in Touch Every Day

For the KITE (Keeping in Touch Every Day) project, we developed two prototype devices in collaboration with two people with dementia and their carers. The devices were intended to assist the particular individuals involved in the project in the maintenance of solitary activities outside the house and help alleviate fears they or their carers may have about them becoming lost. One of these people was a woman who wanted a device to support her visits to friends and family (she drove a car) and the other was a man who wanted to use it while out running. The first device was embedded in a specially design notebook, and the second took the form of an runner’s armband.

The devices incorporated both GPS (for positioning) and GSM communications. When in use, a device continuously reported a user’s location to a central web server that, when requested, would transmit the last known location for the device to a mobile phone or computer. If the user was concerned that they were lost, they could press a panic button on the device that would trigger the server to send a text message to their carer’s mobile phone. The text was accompanied by a map showing the person with dementia’s location.

Part of the KITE: Keeping in Touch Every Day project.



Older people face a number of issues that may impact upon their emotional or physical wellbeing, such as difficulty living independently. The number of people aged 60 and over has tripled over the last fifty years and is expected to more than triple again in the coming fifty years. Digital technology has also developed rapidly in recent years, radically changing the ways in which people approach many different tasks and activities. The aim of the OASIS project was to utilise these technological advances in order to increase the usability, quality and breadth of services available to the older population.

The project used ontologies to promote connectedness between multiple applications that could provide support to older people in the management of their lives. It was a collaboration between 33 partners and consisted of five sub-projects and 25 work packages. The domains OASIS intended to target were mobility applications, applications for use in the workplace, and independent living applications, including applications to aid socialisation.

Newcastle’s primary role in the project was to develop a participatory design method to be applied by numerous different design teams that had little experience of working with older adults. We consulted with these design teams throughout the development of two distinct methodologies, one focused on quick engagement with older people and the other focused on extended periods of time. These methodologies have now been used, modified and applied in various other projects.

Date: Jan 2008 – Dec 2011
Funding: European Commision Funded, 7th Framework Programme (Fp7) £196,032
Researchers: Patrick Olivier (PI), Phil Blythe (CI) – CEGS: School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences.                                                                                                                        Stephen Lindsay,  Amy Guo (CEGS), Yvonne Hubner (CEGS), and Simon Edwards (CEGS).
Collaborators: 33 organizations and companies from 11 countries,  2 of which are non-European.

See the OASIS project website.

KITE: Keeping in touch every day


People with dementia commonly experience memory problems. A concern for both them and their carers, therefore, is that they will become lost while out alone. While not unreasonable, this can prevent the maintenance of healthy, useful and enjoyable practices that people with mild to moderate dementia are often otherwise capable of carrying out, such as walking, jogging or driving. The aim of the KITE project was to develop technology that would help alleviate these worries, while enabling people with dementia to maintain their independence and continue to take part in these activities.

We went through a participatory design process with both people with dementia and their carers that had three parts. These were the scoping stage, where we asked our participants about their experiences of “getting out and about, the participatory design workshop stage, where our participants were invited back to help us explore what features they would expect from technology designed to aid them in getting out and about, and the prototype design stage, where we developed prototype devices for two people with dementia. In the participatory design stage, the importance of the device being easily integrated into everyday routines was stressed, as well as being simple to use. We utilised what we had found out in the participatory design stage to tailor each device to its user and the activity during which they would most likely be using it. The devices incorporated GPS functions that enabled them to see their location and to transmit information about their whereabouts to their carer.

See also: KITE

Date: Jul 2007 – Feb 2009

Funding: EPSRC: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, CELS:Centre for Excellence in Life Sciences. £101,100

Researchers: Patrick Olivier (PI). Louise Robinson, and Katie Britain (CIs) – Institute of Health & Society.
Cas Ladha, Dan Jackson, Stephen Lindsay.


“KITE is helping to raise hopes”, Evening Chronicle, (no online archive)

“Device to improve life for dementia sufferers”, Journal Live, 20 Mar 2008

“Electronic tag hope for Alzheimer’s patients”, The Telegraph, 31 Mar 2008



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Engaging Older Adults & People with Dementia in Design

An ageing population and a rise in dementia among the older community mean that it is becoming increasingly important for people who are designing digital technologies to engage older people in the process. However, it is rare in the field of HCI for research to even refer to older adults. For example, at a recent leading HCI conference, less than 2% of papers touched on issues related to ageing.

The purpose of this PhD, therefore, was to investigate the ways in which older adults and people with dementia can be engaged in the design of digital technologies. We recruited numerous people from these groups to create participatory design techniques and develop prototypes in response to the needs they articulated. This research was carried out alongside the KITE and OASIS projects, and the design approach we developed during the course of this PhD was applied to the issues those projects addressed and then refined using their findings.

Date: October 2006 – August 2011

Project supervisor: Patrick Olivier, Katie Brittain, Louise Robinson

Funding: EPSRC