Getting older poses a lot of challenges. One is to cope with increasing social isolation – a lack of relatedness. But “loneliness” is not only a result of increasing health problems and according limitations in personal mobility. It is a natural consequence of an ever narrower circle of friends.
The telephone takes a central role in mediating relatedness, but at the same time it introduces a host of problems due to its design. Kathrin Völker did an analysis of older people’s social situation and their use of the telephone. It is problematic for at least two reasons: First, it requires the conscious decision to call someone. Often older people refrain from calling, because they don’t want feel as a burden to their children and friends. No matter, how often the same children make sure that calling is never a problem – there is still this unpleasant feeling of pleading and loneliness exposed. On the other hand, children often postpone calls. The more they do, the harder it gets to actually call – guilt and accusations are not uncommon. Second, the telephone is build around the pattern of conversation. However, you need something to tell, to carry on a conversation and to make it interesting. The more isolated people are, the more difficult this gets.
Kathrin developed, prototyped and designed a concept to open up this typical situation. It is a simple small beamer, camera and microphone attached to a lamp hanging over the dining table. Two “lamps” are connected via the internet and the connection is always on. This creates a channel between two places – with no need to give an explicit call. But more importantly, this channel is mainly visual and created on a table, which subtly steers interaction away from conversation to joint action. Joint action is an important way to feel close, which emphasize the mutual creation of new experiences, instead of the exchange of experiences made elsewhere.
Kathrin tried it out. Just have a look at these two small movies of people drawing a picture together and grandchild and grandmother “touching” over the distance.
These are impressions of the final concept:
And finally, Kathrin Völker’s complete thesis (in German).