Kristopher Thompson, Coordinator of the New England Assistive Technology Center, shares his vision of the future in “Assistive and Smart Technology: Getting More Out of Life.” With smart technology built in to our electronic devices, we are “leveling the playing field” for people of all ages and abilities. With new opportunities for customization, learn how more people are leveraging technology to get just what they need to help live their best lives.
Roseanne Azarian: Welcome to Front Door, a My Place CT Podcast. My Place CT is a free web-based resource from the State of Connecticut that helps people live life independently. Learn more at myplacect.org.
Hi, I’m Roseanne Azarian, the host of Front Door, where older adults, people with disabilities and the professionals who help support them come for information and inspiration. Subscribe to Front Door on iTunes or the Apple Podcast app, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. Front Door is a production of the Connecticut Department of Social Services and Mintz + Hoke.
Today’s episode is about assistive and smart technology. And to help us get our arms around it is our guest, Kristopher Thompson, Coordinator of the New England Assistive Technology Center, better known as NEAT, at Oak Hill in Hartford, Connecticut. Kris, welcome to Front Door.
Kris Thompson: Thank you.
Roseanne: So good to have you here.
Kris: Great to be here.
Roseanne: What has you most excited about assistive and smart technology?
Kris: The fact that it’s really leveling the playing field for everyone. These things are built into everything now. I mean, with a smart speaker, you can buy these for like thirty dollars now. You can voice control electronics and other smart technologies. You could use it to voice control a calendar. A lot of the smart technology is built with convenience in mind, but it really, I mean it can be life-changing for people to be able to have different access points to be able to accomplish things that they wouldn’t normally be able to do.
And these things are, smart technology is available everywhere now—I mean, so at Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond—every time I go to a new, another store I’m starting to see these smart technology sections popping up everywhere, and this is really enabling technology. And so yeah, and artificial intelligence, it’s the brink of artificial intelligence, and to see where that goes is exciting.
Roseanne: So, tell me … take me through an everyday life situation. You talked about control in the home. What do you mean by that?
Kris: Well, to be able to automate things—and one great example is like with an Amazon Echo or Google Home Assistant … these smart speakers. You can now just wake up and say, “Good morning,” and have your thermostat set to a certain degree temperature or your whole environment controlled right there with one command.
Shades can go up and down. You can have your commute read to you from home to your work or wherever you plan to go that day. Lightings set to a certain level—certain lights can go off here, certain lights can go on there, and you can have your calendar read to you for the day. If you have a doctor’s appointment, it’s read for you. You can have reminders set for you to make sure that you’re on top of your task, you know, to kind of prompt you to make sure you’re on task.
And that’s just amazing, that just by saying like, “Alexa, good morning,” and all these things can happen at one time with one command and then it’s, it’s just the beginning, too. This is very new technology, and also these technologies are built into everyday things like our smart phones to have magnifiers and screen reading technology. At one time, these things were kind of compartmentalized to where if you wanted a money reader, you’d have to pay thousands of dollars for a money reader, or if you…
Roseanne: What is a money reader?
Kris: There’s actually a little device that people would use, or it’s a money identifier, like if they’re giving change back or they’re giving, paying for something. They would, it’s like this little, it has a little screen on it and a camera and it’ll take a picture, and it’ll read what the denomination of the money is—if it’s a ten dollar bill, it’s a five-dollar bill—so they know that they’re giving and getting the exact amount of money. And those were very pricey just a few years ago. But now it’s, you can download a free app and it does it for you.
Roseanne: Also, I’m struck by the fact that you can control things in the home when you’re not home.
Kris: Exactly. Yeah. You can do it manually or you could have things automated, which, where I work at the NEAT Center, we do home assessments, and I meet with people, and sometimes they can be intimidated by smart technology, and then I let them know, hey, you know, this stuff, you don’t even know it’s here. It’s just, it’s a bulb that connects to your Wi-Fi or it’s a smart switch that just replaces your existing light switch, and it can be automated for you.
So, your lights upstairs will come on automatically at sunset and your lights downstairs will come on at sunrise. I work with someone in Shelton who just wanted her porch light to come on automatically so that someone could help bring her mail to her porch and the light would be on for him every day. So, it’s just amazing, and it’s just there and you don’t even have to worry about it. There’s nothing to be intimidated by. It just does it for you.
But then you can also, you know, just build on someone’s strengths. If, if someone wants to be able to control things with their voice, they can do that nowadays. You can do things with your touch or there’s even technology where you can control things with your eyes. It’s just amazing. And we’re just, this, the technology explosion has just happened over like the last three or four years, and it’s almost a full-time job for me just to stay on top of it all.
Roseanne: I’ll bet. What about social connection? We know it’s so important for people to interact with other people. What has technology allowed us to do that we couldn’t do before?
Kris: Great question. And for the, these smart speakers, for example, they now allow a person to be able to place a call between devices. Or if you have one of these Echo Dots that cost like thirty dollars, or the Google Home Minis, you can now make a call with just your voice.
Also, you can kind of use them as like intercoms—you can speak between them. They don’t even have to be in the same house. So, like, for example, I was working with someone who had a, she had a twin. They didn’t live together, but they both wanted to stay in touch with each other. And it’s just really cool—they can drop into each other’s Echo and see what each other is up to and don’t have to worry about finding their phone.
Also, like with the smart devices—iPhones, iPads—they have so much great accessibility built into them. So, someone can use voice detects to be able to just speak the words. You know, computers can be intimidating if someone wants to email or social media—you have to get a computer and you have to have a keyboard and use a mouse, and the interface can be intimidating at first. But with a tablet, it’s, you touch, it has so much accessibility, it can read the screen to you.
And this stuff is built in too. This accessibility is free along with the tablet. It’s included with the price, and as long as you have a network connection. You can use your email if you want to stay in touch with family, you can use texting, which is almost the preferred way to stay in touch nowadays. So, these tablets and smart phones, they’re considered smart technology, and they enable someone to stay socially connected so well.
Roseanne: There is though nothing like face-to-face.
Kris: Mm hm.
Roseanne: A grandmother and her granddaughter talking, could have a regular routine.
Roseanne: That is pretty awesome.
Kris: That is. And again, that’s something that’s built into these tablets. You can use FaceTime, Skype … there’s so many different kinds of video chats too, if you can’t be actually in person. And also, like with the Amazon Echo Show, which is actually a version of the Echo that has a built-in screen on it, but it’s completely voice controlled, which is amazing.
So, if someone on one end has the Show and a caregiver or family member has just their smart phone, they can download the Alexa app and be able to drop into the Show, see the living room, see how they’re doing, have a face-to-face interaction—which that actually happened with my grandmother and my daughter. My grandmother’s 96 years old. She’s living alone, and she has the Show.
I put the Show … she doesn’t have to touch it, mess with it … Its voice controlled, if she wants to, but whenever my three-year old wants to drop in, she can. She has her little old iPad and it’s just old enough to still run the Alexa app, which is free. The app is free on our end. So, she just drops in and if my grandmother is in the back, she’ll hear my daughter yelling for her in the living room, and she’ll say, “I’ll be in there in a minute,” and then they’ll … oh, by the way, they live 1,300 miles apart, too, which is fantastic.
Roseanne: It is. It really is. And it must be, I would imagine, for both the high point of the day in many…
Kris: Oh, it is, it is. And it’s great because my grandmother loves, loves to talk, and you know, I hate that we can’t live closer, but it does enable the two of them to be in touch on a daily basis and to see each other and speak with each other on a daily basis from such a long distance from each other.
Roseanne: Before we dig into this topic a bit more, let’s take a break and we’ll be back with Kris Thompson after this.
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Roseanne: We’re back with Kristopher Thompson, Coordinator of the New England Assistive Technology Center.
Roseanne: It’s interesting. You talked about the accessibility built in.
Kris: Mm hm.
Roseanne: This opens up so many opportunities. I was curious as to, if you could tell me a little bit more about just exactly how is it leveling the playing field?
Kris: Yeah, it’s really leveling the playing field in the fact that it’s all built-in. It’s free. You know, you don’t have to, all you have to do, like if you’ve got an iPad, is just go into the settings and enable your screen reader and everything on your screen is read to you. Or if you’re in a restaurant and you want to be able to read the menu—maybe the font’s a little too small—you can just go into accessibility and enable the magnifier and, and the voice, voice detects. I mean, these are things that everyone kind of uses to a degree, but for someone, it really enables them to stay either socially connected or to be able to do things they wouldn’t normally be able to without it.
Roseanne: Do you see some of the stigma coming off people who have unique needs, that need some assistance?
Kris: Yeah, absolutely, because the majority of people, have smart devices these days. So, they’re using what everyone else has and a lot of times you can’t even tell that they may have a visual impairment. Or there’s actually an app, too, called the Ava app, for someone to, if they’re in like a room with people and they want to be able to know what they’re saying, it will transcribe conversations for them. So, they can just read the text and know the conversation that’s going on around them. And that’s on the smart phone too. It’s nothing that you would even think was something medical or have that stigma attached to it.
Roseanne: And it’s all about access—having access to the same technology allows everybody to do what they want to do.
Kris: Exactly. And I have to tip my hat to these tech giants too, like Apple and Google and Amazon, that they are really taking it seriously in implementing it into all of their products, and they’re not really trying to tap into a potential market there. They’re really, they’re really leveling the playing field for everyone.
And same with home building, too. I mean, the fact that universal design is really being implemented in the way houses are being built. You know, people do want to live in their homes longer these days, and there are certain adaptive things that need to be done when a house is built. And the way I see it, is homes are going to be built smart one day and it’s going to be kind of the standard, the norm, and there’s going to be the doorknobs that everyone can access and the things in the tubs we need to get out, and things like that.
Roseanne: This is fascinating if we were to stop right now. But I’d like to ask you …
Kris: Mm hm.
Roseanne: What does the future look like for assistive and smart technology?
Kris: It looks very, very promising. With all of the innovations that are happening right now, like with tele-health. Tele-health is the big topic right now because with Baby Boomers aging, there’s a big crisis that is being addressed with state governments, federal governments—they’re really trying to find solutions—and tele-health is kind of a big priority right now.
And a lot of future visionaries are seeing these robots that go around the house and take blood pressure, and I really don’t see it that way; one, because they’re a little intimidating. A lot of people are intimidated by technology, new technologies, and especially a roaming robot around their house that they could trip over or …
I see it, like with tele-health, people are becoming more health conscious these days. They’re wearing fitness trackers. They’re wearing smart watches. The Echo Shows are in people’s homes. They have tablets. I think that a lot of tele-health can implemented into these technologies that people use every day. Be able to monitor pulse rate. Be able to have a video chat, video conference with a doctor and be able to submit medical information that way.
So, to me, I think with keeping it universal—something everyone uses—I think that’s more feasible and can be less intimidating than a lot of the robots that people are seeing. Also, there’s such a big technology explosion right now. I have a hard time keeping up with everything. That’s why I love that I do these assessments, ‘cause every time I go in, someone will ask me, “Is there a way I can do this?” “Is there…”
Roseanne: A home assessment, Kris?
Kris: Yeah, when I do a smart home assessment for someone who wants to be able to accomplish something that they, they can at the moment, and I find ways to help them do it with commercially available smart technology. And there’s been times where, for instance, the gentleman’s like, “I want to be notified.” Gentleman was bedbound. He said, “I want to be notified if there’s a leak in the basement.” You know, “Can something tell me that?” And I’m like, “I don’t know? I’ll go look and I’ll …” Sure enough, the technology’s out there.
So, the technology’s exploding so much that the … let me just back up a minute. The technology’s out there, so that he would be notified on his tablet, which was mounted right by his face, or on his smart phone, or a family member. They could all know that a leak was detected and he could take action. And so, that technology exists. And every time I do these assessments, someone’s like, “Is there a way I can push this button,” or “Is there a way that I can control my television with my voice?” And I’ll go and research, and “Yes, there’s a way, and here’s the way,” and then I’ll carry that knowledge on to the next one.
So, the technology is evolving so quickly that I don’t even know what’s out there until someone asks me if there’s a way they can accomplish something that they normally couldn’t.
Roseanne: So, we’re really stoking the fires of independent living.
Kris: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s really at a very ideal time.
Roseanne: It also sounds like a lot of customization.
Kris: Yeah. I mean one size does not fit all. I’ve done a number of assessments, and every assessment is different. I learn something at every single one, which they’re just as important for me as it is for them because I’m going to carry this knowledge on to the next person. It really is—it’s every, every situation has to be customized. You can’t really attach this technology, all the capabilities to everyone, because everyone has their own strengths and abilities that, you know, enable them to do their daily activities.
Roseanne: Sounds awesome. I can’t wait to program my smart phone so I can put the lights on when I come home late. I’ll start.
Kris: Absolutely. And autonomous vehicles. I have to mention those. That’s the thing that’s, that’s really going. All this stuff’s gonna merge, too. Smart technology, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robots. I mean it’s all gonna help us automate our lives so much easier and level the playing field. It’s really huge where these things are going for everyone.
Roseanne: Seems like it’s seamless and endless, so sky’s the limit?
Kris: The sky’s the limit. It really is. So, I’m excited to see where this goes and very glad I get to be a part of it. And I really hope to enable a level of independence for everyone.
Roseanne: Thank you so much.
Roseanne: A pleasure.
Kris: It was a pleasure for me, too. Thank you.
Roseanne: Thanks so much for listening to Front Door, a My Place CT Podcast. Please subscribe, rate or review the show on iTunes. And you can access all the episodes as well as transcripts and the show link at myplacect.org. Stop by Front Door for our next episode. And remember, our door is always open.
Anncr: Front Door is a production of the Connecticut Department of Social Services and Mintz + Hoke.
My Place CT is the virtual home of No Wrong Door.