For using smart design to make our environment more accessible as we age
Groundbreakers 2016
Photograph courtesy of TechSAge

The woman guided her wheelchair onto the sidewalk along Spring Street in Midtown and considered her options. She was only going a few blocks to the Center for the Visually Impaired on West Peachtree Street and Fourth, but to get there smoothly, she had to consider potential barriers that able-bodied people don’t usually worry about, such as missing curb cuts, broken sidewalks, and steep slopes.

She consulted the new app on her smartphone, which directed her along Armstead Place rather than Fourth Street; there’s no walk signal or crosswalk across traffic-heavy Spring Street at Fourth. The app, called ALIGN (an acronym for Application for Locational Intelligence and Geospatial Navigation), developed at Georgia Tech and being tested in Midtown, allows users to select walking routes that avoid high-crime areas, uphill climbs, or even searingly hot and unshaded sidewalks.

It’s just one of many innovations emerging from the university’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technologies to Support Successful Aging with Disability, or TechSAge. The center brings together nearly 30 researchers, all working on devices and designs to make life easier for people who are aging with physical limitations.

“There’s more power [in tech solutions] when we’re working together,” says architect Jon Sanford, who codirects TechSAge with Wendy Rogers and Tracy Mitzner, psychologists who specialize in the acceptance and use of technology by older adults. Sanford is a champion of “universal design,” which aims to make the built environment accessible to everyone, and many of the TechSAge developments, such as ALIGN, could also be useful for younger, able-bodied people.

Among their projects: TeleWellness Technologies uses a telerobot—basically a remote-controlled iPad affixed to a wheeled pole—to enable people to join an exercise class without leaving home. GatePal, another app, guides travelers through Hartsfield-Jackson airport with less frustration—for instance, directing them to shorter security lines, as people with disabilities may find it hard to stand for long stretches. Food for Thought, a video game accessible to people with visual or dexterity impairments, provides cognitive training for older adults. TechSAge also has a futuristic side, with research into smart beds that can be repositioned via the internet, robotic caregivers, and a SmartBathroom that uses sensors to automatically readjust hand supports and toilet height as needed.

The common thread: creating a user-friendly world, no matter what our abilities—or age.

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This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.