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As boomers go gray, will big money mean better tech?

Companies targeting a large retiree market with money and time to spare could result in better features for all. Images: Tech for the aging technocrat

BOSTON--With software pitches, robots and hands-on video game demonstrations, this year's national AARP convention more closely resembled a consumer electronics show than a meetup of retired people.

It's no secret that people over 50--particularly retirees--with their disposable income and leisure time, are a prime target for consumer goods.

In 2004, people age 50 and older spent, on average, 47.6 percent of their family budget on "nonessentials," according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor. And the number of retirees is growing as the large baby boomer population joins the group.

In July 2006, there were an estimated 89 million people age 50 and over in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But in the past that group, which traditionally might have had trouble programming a VCR, were of little interest to tech companies.

That's all changed. "This is the first tech-savvy retirement generation...Maybe they didn't grow up with it as a teen and in college, but they have been living with it for the past 15 years," said David Kelly, president and founder of Upside Research, a technology research company based in Newton, Mass.

Companies like Nintendo, Microsoft and others are targeting this lucrative market. For the first time, Nintendo had a booth at the national 2007 AARP conference in Boston, which took place in September. While Wii Fit was introduced at the E3 gaming conference in July, the AARP convention offered the first opportunity for the public to play and test the balance board controller that goes with it. Like Wii Sports, it offers interactive athletics and tracks progress, but the sports in Wii Fit include yoga, stretching, balance exercises and monitoring your body mass index.

Baby boomers will be the first test group for companies on how elderly people interact with digital technology, an important topic to study since, as the AARP likes to say, "100 percent of the population is aging." Today's Second Life "millennials" will someday be octogenarians using tech.

As for the upper end of the mature population, even someone over 70 has likely used a cell phone and has a DVD player instead of a VCR. Many use e-mail and other online services.

In 2006, about 68 percent of people age 50-64 years used the Internet, compared to only about 31 percent in 1998. For the same time span, Internet usage increased from 12 to 53 percent among those age 65 to 74 and from 4 to 24 percent for those 74 years and older, according to a report from the AARP (PDF).

The long lines at the conference to play with Wii Fit and other Wii games, such as Flash Focus and Brain Age 2, showed there is a high level of interest among older people to at least try video games.

"Nintendo changed our company strategy about two years ago to try to go after what we considered an expanding audience. We'll of course still market to (people) under the age of 25, but as an industry it's getting stagnant. So we set off with the DS and Wii to go after expanding from the age of 25 up to 70," said George Harrison, senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Nintendo.

Products like that make perfect sense, according to William Gribbons, founder of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley College and director of its human factors and information design program.

"This population is looking to maintain their lifestyle, stay very mobile and age in a way of their own choosing. It's not like 20 years ago, when it was off to the home in retirement," he said.

Something like the Wii, with a controller that uses natural motions through the air, seems like an easy intro into video games. The AARP members testing it out were able to start playing immediately after watching the person ahead of them for only a few minutes.

Other companies seem to agree that what we think of as the traditional video game audience has changed.

Nintendo has partnered with building firm Dell Webb to have its systems incorporated into the club houses and lounges in their over-50 communities. It's also partnered with Norwegian Cruise Lines to make Nintendo available on flat-screen TVs in the ship lounges. The partnership has resulted in some of the ships holding Wii tennis, baseball and bowling tournaments.

"In general, it's not just making hardware easier to use. It's what people could use: self-improvement software...If you look at Wii Fit software, no one would have even considered that to be a video game. We've expanded that," said Harrison.

But while baby boomers and even older people may be conversant in computers, they might not necessarily be savvy enough to set up and customize systems themselves.

"You'll probably see organizations coming out with additional services around the products such as installation and support service customization. Because even though this is the first tech-savvy generation, you will still need help in configuring and optimizing. I think we're already seeing that in the general population with Geek Squad and home theater services like Best Buy is selling," said Kelly.

Google seems to already understand that. At the AARP convention, its representatives were not just registering visitors for Gmail accounts, but taking the time to customize them for people.

Galen Panger, a Google representative, helped retiree Carol Weiss of Cambridge, Mass., set up a Gmail account and customize it to include an alumna e-mail account from her alma mater so she could send e-mail from different addresses.

She admitted that she probably could not have figured out how to set up the extra Gmail features by herself, but she had the same e-mail complaints and needs of any young person.

"I had AT&T and Eudora, then the computer died and with it went everything. Over the summer, I was using AT&T at the library, then I got a new computer and Verizon DSL--I graduated from dial-up--but that AT&T lost all my messages," she said.

She also marveled at the same things early adopters did when they first used a Web-based e-mail application. She said she liked that it offered access from any computer, unlimited storage, searching, the ability to send from multiple e-mail addresses and the same e-mail address for life. She was also keen to be using the latest tech, not one geared toward older people specifically.

"He's telling me that it's popular and this is what the young people use, but is that true? I mean, do you use this?" she said.

Weiss, like most retirees, wants the latest and greatest technology, not a separate, dumbed-down device geared toward them.

The well-designed Jitterbug cell phone, with its large buttons and limited features, may have appealed to older people in the past--and even young people who wanted a simple phone--but baby boomers likely won't like a product like that, Gribbons said.

They'll be insulted with inch-and-a-half buttons like those offered for the elderly on desktop or mount phones and demand something stylish, he said.

At the same time, they'll need aids as their eyesight, hearing and fine motor skills begin to deteriorate over time.

"In 20 or 30 years, you're still going to be at a computer. It's important that (companies) start thinking about this audience now so you can continue doing what you love when that time comes."
--Brannon Zahand, lead test engineer, Microsoft

Since they don't want to be put into an "old box" and buy products geared specifically for them, companies will begin to incorporate subtle accessibility features into cutting edge products sold to everyone, according to both Gribbons and Kelly.

New clothes washers and dryers are one example. Complaints from seniors about having to stoop low to retrieve dryer items resulted in the new style of machines where the door is placed higher from the floor, something that has appealed to everyone, not just older users, said Gribbons.

More Web sites are offering an option, embedded on their home page, that allows users to increase font size automatically. While its original intent was to aid older readers, companies are finding that lots of people are using it, said Gribbons.

GPS devices for cars have also increased in size, according to Kelly.

That change was due partly because larger screens have gotten cheaper to make, but also because the manufacturers went from targeting young early adopters to mainstream users, which include older people. The result is that GPS devices are now more usable for everyone, not just the older driving population.

At the AARP convention, Microsoft offered demos of Vista, its latest version of Windows, throughout the day, but with a twist.

"I'm here to show you what you can do if you spend a half hour with Windows Vista, training the computer to hear your voice," said the Microsoft spokesman.

Pandora CEO Tim Westergren demonstrated how to use his company's DIY customizable Internet-radio service. While the questions he got from the AARP crowd were quite different from the young people who attend his Pandora "town meetings," he said the excitement level and general response once he explained the service was the same. People loved that they didn't have to buy music and that it had a simple interface, he said.

More ambitious was Microsoft's Xbox 360 booth with funky black leather couches and a giant flat screen set up with the Xbox 360.

While one Microsoft representative agreed that his grandmother would probably not be playing Halo anytime soon, he insisted that the Xbox 360, with its all-in-one capability directed toward multimedia and communication, is easier for a luddite.

"If you gave a new Xbox to your grandmother and grandfather and gave them the manual, they could have it set up in 10 minutes. Why do they need a DVD player and CD player and TiVo when (they've) got everything here?" said Brannon Zahand, lead software development test engineer on Microsoft's Xbox team.

"Half the problem is the intimidation factor...but if I sent my grandmother this (a USB device) with photos and videos, she just plugs in and presses play. With a PC it would be a little trickier," he said.

He also pointed out that the Xbox can be used to play things like UNO, a classic game a grandparent likely already knows how to play. In the new format, it would allow her to connect with a long-distance grandchild.

"The tech is going to support the life themes that are important to baby boomers," like maintaining independence, mobility and staying connected with family and friends from anywhere you are, said Gribbons.

"So any degree that tech can serve those life themes, you have a market product...It's like Apple, where we're talking about not just usability but the larger experience," he said.

While the analysts may know their current aging statistics and trends, they both neglected to mention one very key point .

"You know, you forget. In 20 or 30 years, you're still going to be at a computer. It's important that they start thinking about this audience now so you can continue doing what you love when that time comes," said Microsoft's Zahand.

When today's gamers retire they'll still want to play video games and they'll even have more time to do it. But they might need bigger icons or voice recognition or who-knows-what by then, he said.