PENSIONERS are to get hi-tech gadgets to negotiate shopping centres as part of a £12m investment in innovation for the elderly.
Experts at Newcastle University are being given the cash to develop new technology to help people stay confident and independent as they get older.
The sat-nav-style gadgets could be used to help the elderly find their way around unfamiliar neighbourhoods or large stores and supermarkets.
University researchers are also working on a hi-tech kitchen that will guide people through cooking processes as they use it.
The institution is one of three in the country to be awarded the £12m investment over the course of the next five years.
One of the products being worked on is the ‘Ambient Kitchen’, which monitors a person’s progress as they cook through a series of electronic tags and sensors built into the floor, utensils, appliances, cupboards and work surfaces.
The kitchen – which looks normal – is programmed to know every step involved in preparing a series of recipes. If the person departs from the correct process, advice is projected onto one of the kitchen walls.
It is thought the technology will give people with dementia more confidence when cooking for themselves.
The scientists will work with a group of 3,000 volunteers from across the North East.
Dr Patrick Olivier, a reader in human-computer interaction, said: “I think its one of the first times that the research councils have really engaged with people at a low level.
“The involvement of real people and the commitment to having people talk to us about what we should be developing is very important. This isn’t the usual university egg heads working in isolation.”
Dr Olivier said the idea of the kitchen was initially inspired by the plight of dementia sufferers. He said: “The idea is that the technology is embedded in the kitchen – it looks like your normal kitchen. We were motivated by people with dementia having trouble making food and drinks.
“When they get lost half way through making something, which is typical, the technology will prompt them.
“The prompt is just projected up a wall.”
Another possibility being developed is a special brooch which, simply by touching it, allows the user to request a carer. A signal is sent to a corresponding brooch worn by the carer that then vibrates, alerting them that their help is needed. The jewellery might could also be worn by a family member.”
Professor Paul Watson, leading the research at Newcastle University, said: “Our aim is to generate a pipeline of high-quality ideas that can make a real difference to people's lives, and then to start commercialising them as the hub's work nears its conclusion.
“As part of the hub, we’ve set up a team of software and hardware developers, so we'll be able to produce prototypes that are as close to the envisaged eventual products as possible.
“That means we could see life-transforming solutions reach the market within three to five years.”
Science and innovation minister Lord Drayson said: “New technologies can transform our quality of life. The unique thing about the new hubs in Aberdeen, Newcastle and Nottingham is the focus on designing digital technology that includes people from all walks of life.”