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Virtual Reality (VR) SXSW Karmarama

Connecting older generations: The Drum and Karmarama roundtable at SXSW


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

March 21, 2018 | 7 min read

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How can technology be put to better use to engage ever-aging generations and the world at large? At the Speakeasy in Austin with Karmarama , The Drum invited seven industry professionals, ranging in ages and professional and personal experiences to talk about the issue.

A telling statistic around the world’s aging population is that, according to, one in 10 people are over the age of 60. In 2050, there will be more people over the age of 60 than between the ages of zero and 14. The ramifications of this development are striking, as is the role of technology in improving the lives of older people.

Though the industry conversation revolves around the world’s latest and greatest technology, a consistent theme that emerged was the importance of empathy, accessibility and storytelling.

The latter, storytelling, is a massive consideration for older people — but not necessarily about them telling stories but rather a broader concept of sharing wisdom as a vital way to keep traditions and human perspective alive for the next generations.

Kevin A. Reinis, president and chief executive officer, Quantum Interface, an Austin startup that creates technology for content and devices that uses human motion, mentioned a Holocaust project from the University of Southern California, where holograms combine with the actual voices of survivors and people can ask questions of the hologram, providing an accurate, powerful and lasting legacy of that time.

“But how do you get it available to the world?” he asked. “Though it’s incredible, is the tech overwhelming?”

Accessibility for older generations

The issue of tech being a daunting task for older generations is a principal consideration and concern. Ever-increasingly older audiences flock to platforms like Facebook, where there is social interaction, but the interfaces can still be clunky or difficult.

“I see a lot of things coming out, but there are things we can do right now that would make older people's quality of life higher,” said Sam Alexander, chief executive officer, C2C Fashion and Technology, a company that works with technology, including manufacturing, in the fashion industry. “Just give them something that all they have to do is interface with — and the TV set is probably the most powerful thing we have to integrate into their basic life. There are so many things that we’ve walked away from that maybe, for older people, we should go back to — all we have to do is create the interfaces.”

One particularly interesting use case is voice. Valerie Vacante, founder of Collabsco a strategy and innovation firm that collaborates with global brands and startups, pointed out that Amazon’s Alexa, as an example, is “almost like having company with you. It’s also very straightforward, and not overly-complicated tech.”

An experiment that London-based agency Karmarama created using voice and Alexa, specifically, is Wise Words, a storytelling skill that shares stories of real older people around topics including love and life — which Peter Dolukhanov, managing director, Creative Futures and group chief technology officer at Karmarama, demoed at the roundtable discussion.

“We looked at some research that says essentially 91% of content online is built by the under-70s,” he said. “So there's a real disparity there. And we looked at what is the best way to get stories told. I think it's an interesting example of how you can try and capture content. And we're going to build this out just to try and enable the younger generation to interact. We think voice is a great medium and a great UI (user-interface) because, as opposed to a robotic voice, you can try and capture the stories of real people and bring that together.”

Creating more purpose, empathy and authenticity

To Dr. Kate Stone, managing director of Novalia, a company that creates interactive print devices, it comes down to purpose.

“If [technology] has a purpose, and if it has a humanly desirable experience, then people will use it,” she said. “No one is going to use anything because it’s technology. That puts people off.”

But again, the notion of enabling both technologies for storytelling and not just using tech for tech’s sake is critical. Plus, having legitimate connections in the real world is more rewarding. Barbara Kelso, principal of Kelso Consultants in Austin pointed out how a nursing home brings in kindergarten students to engage with residents and technology plays an essential role in creating empathy.

“What they're seeing is that the elderly get very interested and very engaged because they want to please these little children, and the children are teaching them,” she said. “They’re saying ‘play on this thing with me, like a piano, that just happens to be digital.’ They're not saying that they are going to introduce them to technology; they're just saying ‘Oh my gosh! Look at this cool thing on my tablet! Would you please use this with me and would you play a game with me?’”

In the broader global context, empathy is a key driver of awareness and action. Atish Gonsalves, global innovation director of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, told how virtual reality (VR) was an important catalyst for making people more aware, and empathetic, of the Syrian refugee crisis.

“People were seeing all numbers coming out from the refugees, and they didn't get what the experience was like to be in a refugee camp,” he said, referring to a UN VR project. “They used very low-cost virtual reality, to create this experience. People saw the Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan, the interviews with a little Syrian girl. That started to create that awareness that this crisis is a human crisis, not a crisis of numbers. And I think that's where, I think, storytelling combined with empathy-building — low cost — makes it accessible, but focuses away from the technology and more on the experience and interface.”

Perhaps surprisingly, VR is a potential boon for older populations — and Alexander noted some tests on VR equipment where “the young people weren’t excited about it, and we couldn’t get the goggles back from the older people because they were more excited about it.” That could indicate that the technology could be of use for aging generations.

Additionally and anecdotally, there is much around the desire to go back to more of an analog world — or more precisely, weaving in the digital and tactile worlds, which is where the connection between generations could see progress.

“My children are going back to vinyl and analog synthesizers,” said Kelso. “[They’re going] back to a real life feeling and yet they want the combination of digital.”

“There's a dying need for authenticity, and I think authenticity does come from real experiences and real stories,” added Gonsalves. “I think there's so much that people who have lived life and get to share those authentic stories of how it was to have gone through it and done it.”

In the end, though, it likely comes down to a more focused effort to better collect, curate and broadly share the stories and wisdom that allows younger generations to engage with older ones.

“I [don’t] think social media is aiming for that,” said Reinis. “I think there is an opportunity there, but there’s not a focused goal towards that other than in academia or other targeted projects.”

“One of the ways we can solve the issue we’re talking about is the culture of disconnecting from the elderly,” added Alexander. “We need to reconnect with the elderly again and bring them into the world with us versus separating them.”

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