Alliance Manchester Business School - AMBS
Article By
Laura Pemberton

Laura Pemberton

PHD researcher at AMBS

Virtual Reality

Researching how older adults use technology in their homes.

Laura Pemberton has been using the Data Visualisation Observatory at AMBS to analyse attitudes to home tech among older adults.

As the global population ages, understanding the unique needs and challenges of older adults has become increasingly crucial. And with this demographic's desire to maintain independence by ageing in their own homes, leveraging technology has become paramount.

So how exactly can technology be tailored to support older adults to stay safely and happily in their own homes for longer? How can we not only enhance the quality of life for older adults but also alleviate the burden on governments and family members tasked with providing care?

Rich tapestry

The age demographic spanning from 60 to 70 encompasses a rich tapestry of lifestyles, preferences, and aspirations for the future. From seasoned professionals still actively engaged in the workforce to retirees exploring newly found leisure time, the diversity within this cohort is distinct.

These individuals may have varied interests and responsibilities, ranging from travel and hobbies to community engagement and family commitments. Moreover, their economic circumstances, including retirement savings, investments, and financial stability, play a significant role in shaping their experiences and approach to technology adoption.

Recognising and understanding this diversity is crucial for fostering the well-being and dignity of older adults as they navigate this pivotal life stage.

Digital landscape

This demographic played a pivotal role in driving the technological revolution, shaping the digital landscape we navigate today. However, not all older adults share the same level of familiarity or comfort with technology - some may have embraced it in the workplace, while others may have been introduced to it later in life.

Therefore, considerations such as digital literacy, accessibility, and usability are paramount in developing technology that caters to the needs and preferences of this diverse group.

While individuals in this demographic may not currently require this technology, it is important to conduct research in preparation for their future needs, as many of us can readily identify a family member who would have greatly benefited from such technology in the past.

By focusing on technology adoption among older adults aged 60 to 70, technology developers can craft age-appropriate solutions that empower individuals to embrace technology's benefits while addressing any barriers to adoption.

Data Visualisation Observatory

I have been conducting studies using AMBS' Data Visualisation Observatory (DVO) to explore this subject in greater depth. In particular, I have been interviewing participants whilst they are emerged in a 'virtual reality' smart home. Specifically, the use of the DVO allowed for an immersive environment that encouraged the participants to imagine themselves using this technology in a household environment.

During the interview process, participants engaged in a structured interaction with four distinct robotic assistants, each with different levels of human-like qualities. This was important because it helped us understand how the appearance of the device affected how participants saw and felt about it.

By looking at how the device looked, behaved, and interacted, we learned a lot about how older adults think about and use technology that helps them. This understanding is crucial for making sure that the technology we create meets the needs and preferences of older adults, helping them feel more independent and happier in their own homes.


In our study we introduced a diverse line up of devices, each with its own unique appearance.

Firstly we had an invisible device, where it felt like having a conversation with thin air. Then there was the Amazon Alexa, the voice assistant we're all familiar with. Next up was Kitty, a cute little robot with a round body and a cat's head. Finally, there was Ziggy, the pint-sized humanoid robot that wouldn't be out of place in a sci-fi film.

Each of these devices served as the primary interface for older adults to interact with a comprehensive smart home system. This system integrated various smart features, including intelligent lighting, motion and activity sensors, a smart pill dispenser, and personalised recommendations based on collected data.

During the interviews, participants engaged with these devices, exploring their functionalities and capabilities. Subsequently, they shared their reactions, thoughts, and feelings regarding each device.


The results of this study emphasise the various roles that older adults assign to smart home devices, with each role categorised based on how much it affects their independence and how comfortable they feel forming a relationship with the device.

Through a comprehensive thematic analysis, four distinct archetypes emerged: The Tool, The Pet, The Carer, and The Warden.

These archetypes represent varying degrees of relationship potential and autonomy risk, providing a nuanced understanding of how older adults perceive and interact with assistive technology in their daily lives.

The intention is not to imply that older adults should be confined to choosing a specific technology archetype. Rather, it is to empower older adults to select the device that best aligns with their engagement expectations and individual needs, thus granting them autonomy in their decision-making process.

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