Imagine you are at home alone. At the age of 75 you are still independent and active, but you notice that everyday tasks take longer to do and there is so much information that it is sometimes difficult to find out what is important in the current news.

Also, you know you would need more exercise but it would be good to have someone to remind you of the importance of your morning gymnastics or call you to go out for a walk. Moreover, the digitalization of all services and interactions is often too complicated. Even though you enjoy online chats with your family and friends, still you feel the need for an easy way to interact with the smart home and to search for information that is interesting.

Every now and then you notice that you have forgotten something and that your hands are not as supple as they used to be in order to use mobile phones and dial numbers, and you wish that AI technology would finally focus on users like you and make interactions with smart home and various devices easier and friendlier, more natural and flexible, more knowledgeable of what you want to do and what you can do.

Then you heard about the socio-technical e-VITA coaching system and you want to try it yourself. It seems to be exactly what you need: an answer to your tedious situation – a virtual coach and smart living environment that supports your individual needs, suggests meaningful activities, and helps you to live a healthier life with much more moments of wellbeing while ageing, either in Europe or in Japan.

First thoughts …

“I have seen these kind of robots on TV, but it was my first time to touch and interact with them. I realized here that they can be communication robots, and that there are different types. On the second day, I got much more used to it and I feel relaxed when talking with them now.”

A participant from Sendai Living Lab

” Nao is so extremely cute, almost like a pet. So that I feel I want to use Nao in my daily life; and I think it will be useful for healthy aging. I think Nao can help people who are living alone with more social contact and being able to communicate. The living lab felt close to my own living room, it was somewhere I could relax.”

A participant from Sendai Living Lab

eVITA Stories : An interview from an active participant to Siegen University, Helmut Künne

Helmut Künne, an active participant to the eVITA project in Germany

What do you see as barriers to older people using digital technology at home?

From my own experience, I believe that also older people are open to new technologies. They hear in the media that there are now many ways to use technology in their daily lives. However, people are often uncertain how they can be sure that they are buying the right solution, who can help them install such a device and how they can learn to use it.

The number of older people who own at least one cell phone is growing steadily. This group can can be assumed to also gradually move on to using a smart phone not only as a phone but also other applications. However, the degree of acceptance will depend on how developers and providers succeed in making these applications user-friendly for older people. The same applies to many other devices that are entering onto the market today.

A much bigger problem, however, is reaching more people from this age group in the first place and getting them interested in these topics. This will certainly only succeed if the key players from politics, society and industry network and launch new concepts with this intention. From this point of view, I consider e-VITA to be a very promising approach to achieving these goals.

Are you familiar with modern technologies?

Already during my studies of communications engineering I had a great affinity for all topics concerning ICT developments and its application in everyday life. At that time, I bought the world’s first programmable scientific calculator, the HP 35 from Hewlett Packard, in order to be able to work independently of the university’s computer center and the punched cards that were common at that time. With the advent of personal computers compatible with IBM devices, I also used such a device in my private life relatively quickly.

Professionally, too, I was intensively involved in the introduction of new technologies in small and medium-sized enterprises as an innovation consultant for a German chamber of industry and commerce as early as the 1980s. One of my tasks was to support these companies in the introduction of CAD, CNC and EDP in development and production.

Are you equipped with these modern technologies – and if so, which technologies do you use (smartphone, computer, TV, wireless speakers or other wireless devices)?

I have a computer, tablet PC, cell phone and a smart watch all connected via wifi. Cross-device data exchange and cross-service communication are part of my everyday life (e.g., retrieving health or weather data via the smart watch, watching TV on the tablet PC, remote control and monitoring of electrical devices such as our robotic mower). In this network, several smart home radio-controlled sockets, a HomePod speaker and a wallbox for our electric car can be operated via apps and voice control. The control and monitoring of my electric vehicle via app or its voice control, as well as everyday applications via app, such as the monitoring of daily drinking quantity, heart function via ECG, movement including fall detection on my cell phone, are now part of my daily routine.

After participating in the first activities of e-VITA, what expectations do you have of the project?

With regard to the e-VITA project, I was excited by the idea of being given the chance as a retiree to actively participate in an international research project. In addition, the idea of participating directly in the project as a tester and interview partner appealed to me, since as a wheelchair user I am severely restricted in my radius of action in my living environment. The multidimensional project approach of e-VITA enables me on the one hand to increase quality of life in my living environment through technical or virtual support, and on the other hand to participate in communication opportunities with the world and also in other communities from leisure, hobby and education through the emerging offer in the form of a communal and neighborhood concept. I also see an exciting aspect for me in trying out completely new devices such as the Gatebox, the Brainmeter from NeU, the OURA-Ring or the NETATMO device with scientific support over a longer period of time – devices with which I would otherwise not have come into contact.

I also particularly enjoy being introduced to new concepts and ideas in the context of e-VITA by joining an online Zoom session by students who are working on their master’s thesis as part of the project and who conduct interviews with me for this purpose. It is also of great interest to me to find out which scientific approach is being pursued in the project. At the same time, I also try to refresh my English skills during the interviews.

The perspective of enabling older people to have a better quality of life through my participation has persuaded me to take part in the project. I am fascinated by the active participation in the development of modern technology for holistic solutions in everyday life and its further development.

Participation in the e-VITA project has led me to become even more concerned with issues of maintaining and promoting my health, activity and performance. For example, testing the OURA ring has meant that I can better compensate for problems in sleep quality and duration during the day due to my autoimmune disease. The app gives me recommendations for gaining sleep quality and feeling better during the day. Training with ExBrain device games motivates me to solve tasks even faster and better, using the Brainmeter to observe how this affects my brain activity. The communication with the Gatebox is initially on a more analytical level in order to find out which functions the AI behind it already enables. By measuring the air quality parameters and displaying them via app, the NETATMO device sensitizes us to think about how air quality influences our well-being and to react accordingly.

As a result of the e-VITA project, I hope for a practice-tested, culturally sensitive offer geared to the target group of older people, from which they can individually compile and use certain components of the virtual coach to increase their quality of life according to their ideas.

What obstacles do you see in this phase?

As in any project, e-VITA is breaking new ground in many areas, with the occasional teething problems that this entails. This applies to the installation of the test equipment and also to the testing of software that is still being developed. I can confirm that as a ‘senior tester’ I am very well integrated in the team at UNI Siegen and that I receive fast and qualified support in the event of problems. The participation in the project gives me great pleasure.

I see a barrier for the project in participants accepting certain devices as well as the willingness of older people to invest their time for the tests and their documentation. As a participant, one should be aware that the provision of the devices represents a great opportunity to contribute to the success of the project through detailed testing and complete documentation of one’s own experiences. The same applies to the willingness to spend time participating in project-relevant interviews, because this is the only way the researchers can obtain information about what the participating older people think about the digital aids for the home offered as part of e-VITA and how they assess their use in everyday practice.

Can you imagine living at home with a virtual coach?

In my situation as a wheelchair user, I can certainly imagine living at home with a virtual coach, since my wife still works full-time. For my personal protection, I already wear a smart watch with a fall detector and external alarm function. As described, a certain precursor to a virtual coach is already in use in our household, in that certain electrical appliances can be controlled by voice or app. I would also find it quite pleasant to be accompanied by a mobile socially-assisted robot in the home. I would prefer such a variant to a stationary virtual coach.

If so, how would you imagine the shape of the robot?

As a wheelchair user, I could well imagine a robot that communicates with me at eye level, e.g. the robot ‘Pepper’. In terms of social behaviour, I prefer the robot from the ‘VIVA’ research project of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Coordinator navel robotics GmbH, Munich). The robot could look like a technological device, but I would also find a human-looking robot pleasing.

Helmut Künne