Boomer-Friendly Gadgets

Technology developed for those with special needs goes mainstream


For decades now, the U.S. marketing mainstream has been defined by the various stages baby boomers pass through on their journey through life. With the oldest of them about to hit 60, it's no surprise that sellers of hardware and software are focusing on "assistive technologies" to aid users with poor vision or motor-control problems. Some of the first innovations in this area were intended to make tiny print appear larger. Microsoft (MSFT ) Windows and Apple (AAPL ) Mac OS have included screen magnifiers, though not very good ones, for several years. But the latest development, Microsoft's Comfort Optical Mouse 3000 (about $27), makes magnification both useful and convenient.

Clicking a small button on the left side of the mouse opens a window on your display -- wherever you place the cursor -- that serves as a magnifying glass. If you hold the button down and move the mouse to the left, the window grows horizontally. Move right, and it shrinks. Pushing the mouse up makes the window taller, and pulling it down makes it small. Turning the scroll wheel while pushing the button controls the degree of magnification. Sometime next fall, Microsoft will release its Vista version of Windows, which will allow much greater magnification because it will let type grow indefinitely without breaking it up into pixels, as it does in Windows currently. (Right now the same software for Mac is far less versatile: The magnification window is always the whole screen.)

MICROSOFT DOESN'T PROMOTE the magnifier as an assistive technology, just a convenience feature. In a sense, the company is right. All of us, no matter how strong our eyesight, have run into trouble with e-mails or Web pages where the type is too small to be read comfortably. As boomers move into their 60s, they are going to find this sort of help more and more useful.

Visual acuity is only one of the things we stand to lose in middle age. Muscles can also turn into traitors, especially during epic sessions in front of a PC. The shaking that plagues people with Parkinson's, essential tremor, and other ailments can make it very difficult to manipulate a mouse -- and the challenges are amplified by the latest generation of supersensitive mice, which respond to much smaller motions.

Drawing on technology developed by IBM (IBM ) Research, a small British company called Montrose Secam developed the $119 Assistive Mouse Adapter, a small box you plug in between your mouse and your computer. Using the same kind of electronics that stabilize images in cameras and binoculars, it essentially insulates the mouse from the erratic motions caused by hand tremors. A dial allows you to control the delicate balance between smoothing and sensitivity for the best results. I don't have a tremor, but when I simulated one, the adapter proved remarkably effective.

Speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies, which have found only limited acceptance outside the world of assistive technologies, may also start to extend their reach. Speech software from IBM called ViaScribe generates captions on the fly for online versions of lectures at a consortium of schools led by St. Mary's University in Halifax, N.S., and including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue. Frances West, director of the Accessibility Center at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, N.Y., says that while it was designed for students with hearing difficulties, it also benefited non-native English speakers. Ultimately, even students with no disabilities felt it improved their understanding.

Clearly, technologies that were originally designed for a relatively small number of people with special needs will be moving into the mainstream. If recent marketing trends are any indicator, more and more of the innovation will be aimed at users on the far side of 50.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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