When is a radio not a radio? When it tells people how you’re feeling

BuddyIt looks like a radio. (A rather nice one.) It plays radio stations. But this is not just a radio, this is a Buddy radio – the latest idea in social networking, designed to connect people who are frail and vulnerable to those who care about them.

I heard about Buddy from the dynamic Adil Abrar of Sidekick Studios, its designers. Buddy is still at an early stage of development (four months ago, it was only a thought in Adil’s mind) so there are still issues to be resolved, but you can see its potential.

There’s already quite a lot of technology on offer to monitor people’s health and alert carers and nurses to trouble. Unfortunately, most of it suffers from various problems:

  • It’s often hideous and faintly embarrassing to have in the home
  • It’s stigmatising: it implies that you’re on the verge of collapsing, because that’s all it cares about: Are you still on your feet?
  • There’s a suspicion it’s a substitute for human contact. Sold as a way of caring for your vulnerable old person, it’s actually a way of ignoring your vulnerable old person until they actually fall down, possibly dead, and you get an alarm signal. (I’m sure telehealth isn’t used like that by everyone, but if someone suggested getting one of these devices for me, that would be my first thought; they’re doing this so they don’t have to call in any more).

As Adil points out, Buddy isn’t ugly. Its look was inspired by the sort of elegant and versatile designs Dieter Rams did for Braun in the 1950s and 1960s. And it’s not just there for the bad times – to check whether you’ve fallen over – but to communicate your moods, whatever they may be. It’s like a very simple Facebook status update, without having to learn to use Facebook.

When you switch on the radio or decide you want to communicate with the outside world, you can turn the dial to one of its settings. These may be words or phrases (you can personalise this) or numbers on a scale of say, 1-10. You granddaughter in Australia may get a twitter update, your daughter a Facebook message, your neighbour a text; the people in your network can choose by which method and how often they receive your updates.

Buddy sends out the messages but is ‘deliberately not two-way,’ according to Adil. ‘We want people to respond by phoning or visiting. It’s not the solution; it’s the catalyst to the solution.’

Buddy has just started a six-month trial with mental health patients in South London, where it fits quite well, because they are used to compiling mood diaries. Adil is convinced, though, that it has a wider application in social care, and was describing it at the A Better Old Age event put together by Patient Opinion at NESTA yesterday.

The appeal of the design is that it uses technology, a radio, which could hardly be more familiar. (The clever bits are done by means of a sim card inside). It’s what techies like to call plug-in-and-play, although if you want to customize your dial, it may be a slightly more complex process.

After only thinking about it only briefly, there seem to me to be a couple of potential (and related) snags

  • Some users (I am thinking of my mother here) won’t necessarily admit how rubbish they feel for fear of being a burden to others. Some of course, may take quite the opposite approach. This will emerge only in testing and it may take some design refinement to get to a point at which people are genuinely communicating.
  • The broad categories on the dial, whether numbers or words, may make consumers feel they can’t sufficiently sum up how they are feeling; they may also not tell their networks enough.

Still, as a barometer of people’s moods, whether they’re feeling better or worse than yesterday or this morning, and as a prelude to a conversation, Buddy is a really promising innovation. Adil and Sidekick would be the first to admit they’re still looking for input, comment and cricitism. You can follow the blog of the design refinement, and contribute to the process, on their website. Would you want one in your house?

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3 thoughts on “When is a radio not a radio? When it tells people how you’re feeling

    • Little invention, lots of potential.
      It will be very interesting to see how it works with mental health patients, and then whether that’s different from how older people use it

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  1. Makes me think a couple of things.

    First, as we get older will we get more technology. By the end of their lives my parents had masses of mainly ugly technology in their houses: chair lifts, oxygen cylinders, boxes of pills etc. Why does it have to look and feel so naff? Maybe there shd be an award for best designed technology gadget for older people to raise the standards.

    Second, often people want simpler, more intuitive technology to connect. I remember an old couple once telling me how they hated it when the bank changed the layout of the ATM because they could not navigate it anymore.

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