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.

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