Europe's population is ageing. Meeting the needs of the elderly presents European authorities with many challenges - socio-economic and health-related - but also some unexpected opportunities for innovative solutions and new technologies to emerge. Take Germany, the most populous country in the EU with around 82 million people. But with a fertility rate of just 1.38 children per mother the population is expected to shrink to between 65 and 70 million by 2060. That means less working-age Germans to support retirees. This is where technology can help. The EU-funded project 'Vital assistance for the elderly' (VITAL) has developed an integrated set of technologies and a unifying platform to provide internet-based services and applications to elderly users. The researchers put in extra time and effort to make the technology accessible to older users who may or may not be experienced in basic computing or technology interfaces like keyboards. As technology goes, it was clear that older generations are more at ease with the television, how it works and what it can do for them as a source of information and entertainment. So VITAL used the humble TV as a benchmark for how simple their tools should be. 'If you can use a television, you can use VITAL's platform,' stresses Dr Oliver Keller of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) which coordinated the multidisciplinary European research project. Remote control for the remote To succeed, the VITAL team knew they would need to push the state of the art in three key fields: advanced user interfaces designed for the elderly (i.e. TV and mobiles), intelligent systems offering interactive and personalised information and services, and speech recognition and natural language technologies. The three-year project, which was extended eleven months to complete the extensive testing and validation work, has delivered on its promise. The VITAL platform comprises applications and services, a user-terminal and an operator-terminal, as well as software to run user applications and the bits and bobs needed to test and operate the applications. The services they have developed include audio books, education and entertainment (edutainment) like multimedia cooking programmes, peer-to-peer games which encourage social contact, a personal newspaper geared to users' interests, and videoconferencing. All of which are mediated through the television. 'Loneliness and the feeling of isolation are common conditions for many retirees, especially if they suffer from illnesses which restrict their mobility,' explains Dr Keller. 'So, the “social” applications are important for more than just fun and games; they can be a vital link to friends, family and carers.' The advantages for people living in remote parts of Europe are also significant, the project coordinator notes, especially for medical consultations via, for example, videoconference. And with the easy-to-use system, older people can stay independent for longer in their homes, which has potential cost-savings for health administrations. Typical scenario In a typical scenario, an elderly person sitting in front of the TV can interact (using speech commands or a remote control) to choose from the services arranged as icons on the screen. The application software then guides the user through the necessary steps. 'VITAL is actually an easy-to-use and modular system, designed to hide the complexity of the transactions taking place in the system,' notes Dr Keller. 'The results from the various user trials have been very promising. The feedback from the elderly people who used the system interactively over an extended period has helped VITAL to adjust the system in line with the real needs of this special user group. The VITAL system has significant commercial potential as well, especially as western populations continue to age. In 2025, the over-65s in Europe is predicted to reach more than 30 %, which is equivalent to 211 million citizens. By 2050, this group could reach more than 42 %, corresponding to almost 265 million people. VITAL is not the only research group looking to provide better, smarter services for the growing greying market, but the extra effort that they have invested in making the platform easy to use and to put the 'fun' in functional should pay off in the long run. Two aspects were of very special concern while designing and developing the system. First, the project applied a very modular approach - the VITAL system can be extended to include new services very quickly and efficiently, with existing service platforms easily integrated. Second, VITAL is based on accepted world standards (ISO/IEC) which dramatically improve the accessibility and usability of its services. The VITAL consortium has a sound plan for exploiting its results, including the service component and capitalising on the social network market. Meticube, an SME with a dedicated business strategy for the health care and ambient assisted living (AAL) markets, will lead the market rollout of this plan. VITAL project received funding from the 'Information society technologies' (IST) initiative of the Sixth Framework Programme for research. The project has just delivered its final report which is available at their website www.ist-vital.org.