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See Me, Hear Me

Microsoft Aims to 'Kinect' With Seniors

Gaming system helps seniors stay fit, active

Sinclair says the journey toward broader accessibility has been an iterative process: “At Microsoft our goal is to make each version of our technology more accessible than the last by embracing a development philosophy called Inclusive Innovation. This philosophy includes not just the development of built-in product features like magnification, text-to-speech, voice recognition and personalization features, but also looks to address ways to make it easier for third-party software and hardware manufacturers to create highly specialized accessibility products.”

But not everything works together. Like many major companies there are a lot of people involved in the development process and sometimes they don’t all get the message. A simple example, the product activation code on a copy of Microsoft Office was so small I had trouble making it out with a magnifying glass. Microsoft says if that happens customers can contact product support to work around the issue.

Providing options

In Windows 8 and beyond Microsoft says it intends to take many of the features from its Xbox gaming system, the gesture recognition of its Kinect System and the live content tiles from Windows Phone and bring them all together. Eventually users will be able to interact with a device, be it a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or television using the methods they are most comfortable with. That may be keyboard, mouse, voice recognition or even gestures. For boomers and seniors this means that eyesight, hearing or dexterity need no longer be impediments to using your computer. And for boomers who want to stay in the workforce longer, it means fewer obstacles to maintaining productivity.

Skipping on Skype?

In October 2011, Microsoft purchased Skype for $8.5 billion. The global video-calling service has become a huge hit among seniors, allowing them to see and hear family and friends no matter where they are. Using Skype on a tablet such as iPad means Grandma or Grandpa no longer needs to make an appointment to either be in front of a computer or television at an arranged time. But Skype has yet to add features such as simple menus or photo button calling that would make it even more attractive to seniors.

According to Sravanthi Agrawal, the London-based head of communications for Skype, the company is only now starting to integrate with the rest of Microsoft, so it may be a while before Microsoft’s accessibility goals are integrated with Skype. At the same time she says that because of Skype’s limited staff, the company has concentrated on improving services for the broad market and has not yet been able to look at creating an interface specifically for seniors. That’s created an opening for some third parties, including Selfhelp and Connected Living, who have built their own senior friendly overlays to operate with Skype.

Microsoft sees Kinect as a big plus for seniors, since it allows them to stay fit and active without facing issues such as strength or fine motor skills. The same technology is already starting to show up in non-Microsoft devices like smart TVs. One day soon you’ll be able to gesture to your TV or computer as just another form of input and not just as a sign of frustration.

Note: “See Me, Hear Me” is a continuing series examining whether major players in the consumer electronics industry are meeting the needs of boomers and seniors.

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