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Robotics and games for older people
Brief description of the opportunity
Next to the physical aspect, health is impacted by mental well-being as well. Given increasing pressure on the health-care system, efficiency becomes more important. Because of this, human contact between carers and the older people becomes more constrained, and as the group of 50+ will increase in the future, this problem will grow. Therefore, we look to innovative ways to assist in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. Robotics and games can contribute to that. Furthermore, they can extend the period of living at home for the older people.
Robots have become increasingly able to interact with people in their environment. Currently, several researchers are working on robots that can provide companionship to the older people. The idea is that robots can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation that many older people face. Next to companionship, robots can also provide help with simple tasks or give instructions and may call emergency services when needed. They can also assist in, for example, physiotherapeutic exercises or medicine intake (the right medicine at the right time). The idea is to link the development in the robotics industry with the development of cognitive training games for older people that are designed to improve memory. This means that the robot would be set up to support the continued independent living of the older adult. There is an opportunity for both the robotics and the gaming industry to have a greater focus on the needs and interests of older people and to work together with the objective to develop products that help reduce loneliness, that have mental health benefits and are fun.
Examples of developments include the companion robot called Alice, developed by researchers from the Free University of Amsterdam and research group SELEMCA and the StartUp (university spin-off of Humboldt Universität) RetroBrain that creates therapeutic video games. The EU FP7 project MOBISERV has developed prototype companion robots that work within a larger, smart home system, and cost around €15,000 each, with the expectation that the price would be halved for early production models and would fall quickly with higher volumes. The target market is older people and their families and care givers, and is particularly relevant in modern societies where families are increasingly widely distributed (the number of single households is large and increasing rapidly) and wider community support is also less readily available.
The ENRICHME (Enabling Robot and assisted living environment for Independent Care and Health Monitoring of the Older people) project, a consortium of 10 partners from six different EU countries, looks at tackling the progressive decline of cognitive capacity among the older people proposing an integrated platform for AAL with a mobile service robot for long-term human monitoring and interaction. The evaluation of the system takes place in two AAL home labs and three older people housing facilities. Another example of a European project is the RAMCIP (Robotic Assistant for MCI Patients at home), which aims to perform R&D on real robotic solutions for assistive robots for the older people and those suffering from MCI and dementia.
These are just some examples of recent developments in the field. The benefits of these robots are manifold, ranging from improved health from reduced loneliness and improved well-being, through to lower burdens on healthcare systems. The manufacture and servicing of these robots will also give a boost to European industry, albeit it is entirely possible that a very great part of the value added will be imported from China, Japan, the US and elsewhere. Some stumbling blocks are not so much the technology, but perceptions and price: the former is being eroded through demonstrators and even movies, while the latter is improving as a result of more general advances in the price-performance and reliability of ICT systems. However, it is not clear how easy it will be to attract the attention and the investment of older people more generally, and there does appear to be a need for further interim solutions and policy initiatives in order to accelerate developments and bootstrap markets.
There is also widespread interest in the role that digital games can play in helping to maintain the cognitive functions of older adults; what is less often commented upon is the large and growing numbers of older people that are ‘gamers.’ Most developers are targeting younger people rather than older gamers, with their latest products, but US market research suggests that around 30% of over 50s are regular gamers (as compared with 97% for the under 20s) and that there is substantial untapped potential in this market segment.
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Barriers and market failures
Although the first companion robots point to a promising future, there are several barriers for companion robotics and games to be able to become a success. In this section, we sum up the most important ones:
- At the moment, to be used by the older people in practice, robots still require further development. And the evidence that both robotics and games improve health outcomes of the older people is scarce. Without convincing evidence, it is difficult for companion robots and games to really catch on.
- As robotics rely on the Internet of Things, privacy and data security are important factors to take into account. Who will be able to access produced data, and are owners fully aware of security and privacy risks? How can they be mitigated?
- Both gaming technology and robotics are generally developed by young people, and most companies in the relevant sector are youth oriented. How can high tech companies understand the older people as a client? There is likely still an information gap about the games and functions the older people prefer and on how to market them.
- As technology and digitalisation advanced very quickly in the last few decades, connectivity between the lived realities of generations is missing. Among the older people, attitudes could be quite reserved.
- Social acceptance in general. For example, in advanced Asian countries such as Japan, the social acceptance to have interactions with robotics and games is much higher. In European countries the social accepted is still limited. The question for European societies is whether we want to address feelings of loneliness and isolation and possibly improve mental health with technology.
- Regulatory issues prevent the convergence of technologies and industries such as health, gaming and entertainment.
- Liability is a barrier as well. Robotics will be able to make certain decisions autonomously. The question in these cases is who is responsible for failure? Furthermore, who is in charge of the robot? The developer, user or caregiver? It is even more complicated in the case of shared decision-making, as both human and machine make decisions that influence each other.
- A market failure is that costs of robots are too high to be sold on a large scale. The technologies are still expensive and many technologies are not yet cost-effective. A question is whether health insurances are willing to pay for robots and gaming devices. Furthermore, next to the purchase costs, the costs of ownership might be high as well. For example, data security and software updates can be pricy.
Thus, several barriers regarding development, privacy, security, marketing, attitudes, regulation and costs are still to be overcome.
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Market prospects – size, growth trends and scalability
Robotics are part of cyber-physical systems (CPS): intelligent robotic systems that are linked with the Internet of Things, or technical systems of networked computers, robots and artificial intelligence that interact with the physical world. CPS for people with impairments or disabilities will be a growing market for high-tech applications. At the moment, the use of robotics, and CPS in general is still limited, partially because there is a wide gap between demands and current technical capabilities and high costs of CPS. These problems will likely be solved in the future, and improved products will appear, also creating new skilled jobs for development, maintenance, repair of robotics.
Looking at the healthcare function of robots, the European market for helpful devices for the older people is estimated to be worth about 13 million Euros in 2016. It is likely that this market will further grow due to technological developments. Other, related, concepts such as smart homes will give a further impulse to the market. Furthermore, companion robots and games to train the brain, for example, can be used in the daily lives of younger people as well, further improving market perspectives. Not only for the older people technologies could reduce feelings of isolation or help stimulate thinking with games. If robots become more sophisticated, they could also provide more general assistance in household tasks.
Robotics will help unburden the jobs of caregivers, as robots could help older people with tasks caregivers perform now and can help a caregiver with a task where currently two caregivers are needed, eg helping an older adult to get in and out of bath. It is however unlikely that humans will not be necessary in the future, as technology can only augment human care. At the same time, robots can enable human caregivers to concentrate more on certain elements of their jobs.
Robotics contribute to assisted living. Assisted living is based on the idea that people want to stay socially engaged, independent and away from hospitals or care homes. It includes concept such as the use of sensors, mobility aids, gaming and robotics. Globally, the assisted living market is very large. In the U.S. in 2011, 41 billion dollars was spent on assistive technology, and the much smaller European market was estimated at 525 million Dollars in 2015. In Europe, there still is low consumer awareness and there are low product adoption rates, but they are expected to change quickly in the near future.
The gaming industry itself is a very large market, and new apps and interactive games for the older people will help the market to grow further. The development of robots can lead to a new product type for the older people, and with that, a new market. Ageing of people in EU countries makes an interesting market for both games and robots, leading to the creation of new jobs as well, for example in design, production, sales, maintenance and repair.
 Gamell, M. (2014). Robotics in the Silver Economy
Challenges - identified need for action
The opportunity here is to further develop and commercialise robotics and games that improve the lives of older people. In order to do so, there are several needs for action. The market is in its early phase and needs a push. Needed action for industry is to:
- Challenge (gaming) industry to view older people as a target market and develop games for older people, linking health, benefits, and fun, thus improving cognitive skills and mobility of the older people
- Stimulate the robotics and gaming industry to collaborate in developing products that help reduce loneliness and stimulate cognition
- Create specific programmes for robotics and games for the older people, attracting international firms to EU countries
- Coordinate activities across research, industry, health care organisations and the older people to co-design robotics and games and ensure maximum economic and social benefits of it.
- Establish training programmes for designers and entrepreneurs
A part of the challenges is not the industry and advancement of technology, but the perceptions of the public. Demonstrations and movies help to promote acceptance, but it is not known how easy or difficult it will be to get attention of the older people. In order to further stimulate acceptance and use among the general public and the users specifically, the following actions need to be taken:
- Promote further awareness of the concept of companion robots and games for the older people among the general public, and specifically the older people, healthcare organisations and insurers.
- Expand living lab projects in order to demonstrate the feasibility of companion robots.
- Establish training programmes for users.
An important issue to be aware of is autonomy and independence. As a robot can analyse one’s behaviour, it can also predict future behaviour. When the user is thinking of harming itself or others, should the robot warn someone or not?
Added value of EU action
The EU already plays a role in robot projects such as ENRICHME. As there are still many barriers and challenges for robots and games for the older people, the EU could play an important role in taking these problems away. The EU can promote awareness, create attractive programmes for international firms and investors for linking robots and games, and could bring different sectors closer together.
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Existing or planned initiatives to build on
Interesting existing initiatives are those such as Join-in, supported by the Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme. The project is for older citizens overcoming barriers by joining fun activities. Join-In developed a comprehensive social networking platform for older people citizens to encourage and support communication and socialising in older people. It includes examples such as video exercises that allow older people to perform age-specific exercises and Memofix, a computer game for older generations that enhances cognitive abilities and facilitates socialising.
Furthermore, there are many robotics projects, a few of which are described in the first section of this case study. Connecting these projects with a projects such as the one above could create real synergies between robotics and gaming
Recommended EU policy actions
In relation to robotics and games, EU policy actions can add value on several issues:
- Industry can be challenged to develop games that are tailored to the older people and combine physical and brain training, to improve cognitive capabilities. Living labs can be stimulated, where older people can test games, robots and were marketing to reach the older people can be improved.
- The EC can promote public awareness with campaigns, platforms, web forums, et cetera. Not just awareness, but discussion can be promoted too to stimulate thinking about the topic. For example, discussion on whether the robot and gaming technologies are a good solution to loneliness, isolation, and reduced cognitive abilities could lead to new insights.
- Future policies need to incorporate robotics, on the level non-, semi- and fully autonomous robotics. Standardisation is required so that robotics can interact with each other correctly, and to ensure certain quality standards. Standardisation could greatly help in strengthening international collaboration. As the creation of customised services and technologies for older people will soon be necessary, this opportunity should not be missed by EU industry.
- Legislation is needed with regards to privacy, as robotics can store data about their users and share these data with caregivers, users and other systems. This information can be of very private nature, such as medical information and the camera filming the user. The protection of the produced data should be taken into account as well. Action is needed regarding ownership and access to data (Atkinson, Dorr, Clark, Clancey, & Wilks, 2015).
- The EU can further fund projects such as the ENRICHME project, and focusing on the link between robotics and gaming.
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Key stakeholders include the robotics and gaming industry (specifically R&D and design), science healthcare specialists, insurance companies and the users and their friends and families. The jobs of healthcare providers could change significantly. At the moment, there are no key players yet, as we are in early stages of combining robots and games.
The market for companion robots and gaming has the potential to grow into a huge market, affecting jobs of healthcare professionals in many ways. Furthermore, policymakers will play an important role in addressing political, legal, environmental and ethical issues. Bringing experts, healthcare professionals, industry, users and policymakers together is an essential start.