Startup Profile: Turn Alexa into a companion for the elderly
Despite the demographic tsunami about to hit with the aging of the baby boomers, few companies are successfully marrying connected devices and elder care. It’s not for a lack of trying. I’ve seen a few startups go after the market and fail, but I do believe there’s a strong business to be had if someone can get the user experience right for both the elderly and the caregivers.
Maybe the Amazon Echo and its voice user interface is the answer. That’s what Dennis Fontaine believes. Fontaine is the head of a company called Transcendent Technologies that develops businesses based on demographic trends. His most recent idea is LifePod, a device that uses the Amazon Alexa Voice services to help provide a companion and assistance for the elderly.
Prior to coming up with the LifePod, Fontaine worked on a roving robot that could interact with elderly people in their homes. But research proved that idea would be a disaster, he said. “In the U.S. people aren’t ready for a robot that can move around your home,” he said.
After buying an Echo, he realized that it might be the right form factor. It stayed out on a counter and theoretically could provide assistance and even conversation, helping ease the loneliness that some elderly feel. So he hired a firm called Macadamian and the two companies created the LifePod.
The device is rectangular and can rest on a support or be mounted on a wall. It has a smoke detector, a nightlight and a touchscreen. And of course, it has a variation on Alexa. The variation allows the device to talk back to consumers and to check in with them throughout the day. So it can remind someone at 10AM to take her pills, or even ask how she’s feeling.
If the response isn’t good, the device can send a text to the caregiver, or perhaps call 9–1–1 if needed. Fontaine has already signed deals with doctors and mail-orders pharmacies that will allow for prescription refills and the ability to call an on-call physician if needed. The device also has a microphone that is always listening for falls.
If a fall is detected it will ask the person if they are okay, and escalate the situation as needed. It also has a camera, although it can be turned off for privacy.
Fontaine is hoping to find a partner to help bring the device from the current pre-production model to general availability. He estimates it would take about four to five months to get it to full-scale production, and he hopes to sell it for a $35 per month subscription fee or $899. That’s comparable to a Lifeline necklace sold by Philips.
Fontaine has also built versions of the device for the hotel and restaurant industry called Rosco. It could let guests in hotels control their lights and A/C in their rooms, and communicate with servers and staff in hotels and restaurants. I’d welcome voice control in the hotel room as someone who loathes playing the popular hotel room game of trying to figure out where the light switch on the bedside lamp is located.
He’s also playing with a consumer device called Alexx which would command the smart home and let users aggregate many commands for the Echo. This has less appeal to me for now, but I’m curious where it could go. A tutoring function could be really useful.
Fontaine says the technology his company has built could be ported to the Google Home or even Siri, but he’d most like to work with Amazon since he’s a fan of the Echo.
As services go, LifePod joins newer connected devices such as PillDrill (it just raised $3 million) and EllieGrid which are trying to help create tech-friendly products to help people age in place. Frankly, we need more ideas here.
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