How can tech help teenagers and older people with challenges unique to their demographic?

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett June 24, 2019
Winners of this year’s AXA health tech awards focused on solving two very different demographic-related issues: the physical health issues faced by older people and the mental health challenges experienced by teenagers.

Image of two older people and two younger people crossing arms

In the latest of our technology for social good series, we speak to two winners of the annual AXA Health Tech & You Awards 2019.

Ducere Technologies, which won the Excellence in Health Tech accolade, has developed a smart insole aimed at reducing the risk of older people falling and hurting themselves. Hebe, on the other hand, won the Mental Health in Children Challenge, and is working on digital coaching software to help teenagers improve their social confidence and skills.

Ducere Technologies - the Lechal smart insole

As the population continues to age across the developed world, how to help older people keep fit and healthy enough to lead an active life is becoming an increasing challenge.

A widespread concern in this context is the potential harm that individuals can do to themselves should they fall. While there are many reasons why such incidents might occur, two key ones relate to improper gait and core balance, both of which tend to deteriorate over time.

To try and address this issue, Krispian Lawrence, co-founder and chief executive of Secunderabad, India-based Ducere Technologies, has adapted the firm’s Lechal smart insoles for visually-impaired people, which he started selling in 2016 in order to transform regular shoes into smart shoes. Translated from Hindi, lechal means ‘take me there’.

The insoles, which were built from the ground up in-house and include both motion and capacitive touch sensors, connect to a mobile phone app using Bluetooth. This app shows individuals how well they are currently able to move around and any issues of which they need to be aware. Lawrence explains:

Users are asked to take an assessment, which consists of six simple tests. The insoles measure things like gait, balance, strength and mobility to identify risk and, based on the findings, they are given a customised exercise plan. The exercises only takes between 15 and 20 minutes each day and can be done without specialist equipment, but it helps people to work on the muscle groups that need improvement.

The system also plots how an individual has performed over time and proactively informs them of any areas that still require work.

The initial aim is to launch the product into the US market in September in partnership with a range of business-to-business organisations, such as the elder care service provider that helped develop, trial and test it. The idea here is to use the technology as an assessment tool following someone’s first fall in order to encourage a lifestyle change.

But Ducere Technologies has also signed up a number of partners in the UK and expects to launch there either late this year or early next. Although the charging model has yet to be formalised, it is expected to take the shape of a monthly subscription rather than a one-off charge in order to ensure “that the functionality and affordability curve match”, says Lawrence, adding:

I’m pretty sure that the future is wearables but as with every new market, there’s an adoption curve. A few years ago, there was a lot of noise around fitbits. We then saw consolidation and now things are starting to become more focused as people identify key areas in which this technology can have a profound impact – and fall health is one of them. Our insoles are meant to feel like a natural extension of the human body – after all, no one leaves the house without their shoes - with the aim being to empower people to live healthier and more active lifestyles.

Hebe: KIT digital coaching software

Whether we like it or not, technology in general, and social media in particular, is affecting how many of us behave. But it is also having a massive impact on our children.

Aimee Bryan, founder of Hebe, which is developing voice-based digital coaching software to help teenagers improve their social confidence and skills, explains:

Many of my peer group say they’re so glad they’re not a child growing up in this day and age, which is a sad state of affairs as they’re fearful of the world their kids are occupying. But the kids have no choice. They think technology is wonderful, but there’s the extra pressure of being always on and a crazy amount of choice, which leads to paralysis over what to do as they feel they have to get it right. It’s undermining their development and their ability to be kids in the true sense of the word.

Not only is this situation affecting their mental health - one in five teenage girls today engage in damaging behaviours, while one in four are struggling with some form of mental illness - but their social skills are being harmed too. As Bryan points out:

The reason we developed KIT, which is the prototype name for our digital talking partner, is that we believe in the power of voice and of people feeling heard. Communication has become very silent and inauthentic and secretive, so we wanted to turn phones back into being talking devices and continue to do what Alexander Bell wanted when he first invented them – to connect people at a distance in a humane way.

KIT, which is based on speech recognition software, is described as a “digital coach, companion and confidante”. As users interact with it, the system provides them with linguistic prompts based on their input, with the goal of improving both their emotional awareness and their ability to express themselves by offering a non-judgemental forum in which to do so. Over time as KIT continues converse, it learns to pick up on verbal cues, enabling it to mirror and nudge individuals towards making positive behavioural change in order to boost their emotional resilience.

Building the foundations

A key challenge at the moment, however, is training the voice recognition software to handle children’s voices more effectively. Bryan explains:

The children’s voices aren’t being picked up as much as we’d like as they often don’t enunciate as clearly as adults, their vocabulary isn’t as varied, their accents can make it difficult or they struggle to speak from an accessibility point of view. We’ve worked with mental health charities to ensure we’ve got safeguarding piece right, but if the voice recognition software isn’t picking up on the right words, we can’t be confident there. So we need to train the software more – the aim is to support children and help alleviate their issues by making an early intervention, not cause them more problems.

As a result, Bryan is in the process of hiring three interns with gaming development skills to help write three new voice-based games. The aim is to use these games to collect children’s voice data in order to enhance the current voice software, while also teaching them social and life skills at the same time.

In order to fund this stage of the company’s development, Bryan intends to look for suitable grants but is also likely to seek investment from angels and private equity providers next year to support her in taking the product to market.

The goal is to build an initial revenue stream by creating courses to develop entrepreneurship and confidence-building skills that could be sponsored by companies and charities and used in after-school and weekend clubs and camps. Participants would then use, and by default test and inform the development of, the KIT software for free.

Over time though, the aim is to embed it into a range of hardware devices, ranging from alarm clocks to platforms, such as Amazon’s Alexa, “so that it will become more intuitively embedded into children’s lives”, Bryan says. While the initial design priority will be young girls, there are also plans to develop parallel products for young boys too. She concludes:

It’s about building the right behaviours to serve children well in future, so not necessarily listening to the social norms of ‘text everyone and silently communicate with your family from the bedroom’. That way, kids don’t pick up negotiation or persuasion skills, or know how to have a constructive argument, but they’re going to need that kind of expertise in future if they’re going to compete with robots.