Building an old people friendly PC

A step-by-step guide to transforming your existing PC to fit the needs of the elderly in your family.

Published Date
12 - Apr - 2016
| Last Updated
12 - Apr - 2016
 
Building an old people friendly PC

The elders of your house, at their special age, have special needs for most activities. Computing is no different. A computer always helps in staying connected and makes most tasks easier, especially for the elderly. But have you ever tried explaining to your grandmother what Facebook is, or how to use Skype? The learning curve hasn’t been easy and specialised computers for them have mostly been too pricey. For example, the Telikin 18-inch model goes for 699$, that is almost Rs. 50,000. Even the Senior Tablet for the elderly costs 400$. You can achieve the same results by putting little effort into modifying your old personal computer, which would just be lying around anyway, into a completely usable and appropriately calibrated device for the seniors in your family. After all, they deserve to be connected too.

The external changes

You can modify the hardware in a number of ways to make the entire experience much more accessible for the elderly. There are some ways in which it is easier or more natural for them to interact with an electronic device, like using a remote, or directly touching where they want to click. Here are a few steps you can take without going overboard.

Step 1: Convert your monitor into a touchscreen

A touchscreen is much more intuitive to use compared to a keyboard and mouse interface. Just look at how quickly anyone learns to use a smartphone. To make your monitor touch-sensitive, you will have to acquire a Digitiser, which is what senses the touch. You can get a DIY Touchscreen kit for your screen size online. The basic process to do this is to place the Digitiser screen on top of the screen inside the casing. You will need to remove the casing to do this and you may also need to make certain size adjustments. Connect a USB-to-4pin or any other specific adapter you may need between the touchscreen and the PC, and then load the required drivers. You’re all set.

Step 2: Put in a Remote Control.

A remote control would greatly minimise the need to walk to the PC again and again just to change a song, or turn off the monitor. This can be done in a number of ways, both hardware and software-wise. A simple on-off switch can be installed by just replacing the connection between the power switch and the motherboard with a connector to an IR sensor. With some minor drilling and placement, the resulting arrangement would work with the power switch of most remotes. For a more complicated approach, you can use an application or code one yourself to detect all functions of a universal remote.
A much better and easier to use approach is using an App-Server based approach in which you install a remote control app on a smartphone and install the server end tool for the same client on the PC. Unified Remote is one such app that supports more than 90 remotes for all kinds of applications with simple and easy to use buttons. 

Step 3: Simplify the Cable Mess

Even the most tech-savvy ones among us are often daunted by the prospect of dealing with PC cables. One of the easiest ways to simplify this for the elderly is to use labels for everything. First, you will have to disconnect all the cables carefully, making sure not to open anything when you don’t know what it is connected to. Once that is done, group the cables according to type and tie them together using Velcro strips – easy to open and tie again. For each such group, add a colour coded label, like ‘Power’, ‘Display’, ‘Storage’ etc.

Tweaking from within Windows

Windows offers a lot of in-built support features for the elderly which make the OS highly accessible. Most of them can be found in the Control Panel under the Accessibility Settings or Ease of Access centre under neatly grouped tabs/menus. Here are some we found useful.

Display Properties: Decrease the resolution of your display to make icons and menus larger. To retain sharpness and visibility, increase the dots per inch. Within the Settings tab in Display properties, click on Advanced > General > DPI setting > Large size (120DPI). Also use higher contrast. Go to Display Properties > Appearance. In the Windows and Buttons dropdown, select Windows Classic, then go for High Contrast in the Colour Scheme Menu. Also set the Font menu to Large. You can also individually tweak font details in the menu under the Advanced button, and select Use Large icons in the menu under Effects button.

Windows Accessibility Tools and Shortcuts: Open Start Menu > All Programs > Accessories > Accessibility/Ease of Access. The Magnifier tool allows you to see magnified areas of your screen in a separate pane. You can place the pane on any side of the screen and can also invert colours when needed. The Narrator tool narrates everything that is present on-screen. The On-Screen Keyboard tool provides a keyboard in your display. This is particularly useful if the touchscreen has been setup.

The Windows Speech Recognition tool allows you to configure the computer to recognise a voice. Once it is configured, this tool can be used to Open Applications and Folders, Dictate text and perform multiple actions via voice commands. One of the simplest features of this application is to show numbers for every action on screen for the command ‘Show Numbers’, where choosing a number behaves as a single click. This is particularly useful when the pronunciations for an action do not match what the computer is expecting.

Keyboard Settings: Go to Start > Control Panel > Accessibility Options and open the Keyboard tab . The options you have here are StickyKeys, ToggleKeys and FilterKeys.

Enabling StickyKeys makes Ctrl, Alt, Shift and Windows behave as pressed until the next keystroke even if the user has let go of it. Enabling ToggleKeys notifies the user of pressing ScrollLock, CapsLock or NumLock with a sound. Enabling FilterKeys makes the keyboard ignore rapid keystrokes or keystrokes in quick succession.

Mouse settings: Using the mouse can be made a lot easier by tweaking some settings under Control Panel > Mouse. For example, setting the Double-click speed to low allows for better detection of slow double clicks. Also, under Pointer tab, you can toggle the last checkbox to show the location of the mouse when you press Ctrl.

Software to make it simpler

There are a number of proprietary software in the market that simplify the entire windows experience by adding a UI layer and Hotkeys on top of the existing OS. For example, Envelope from Simplicity Computers can run off a USB stick and provide a highly simplified Envelope-like interface, as its name suggests, with four sections divided into four simple actions at a time. For example, opening the Email tab gives you options to Read Email, Write Email, see your Address book. The fourth tab in any screen is reserved for Tutorials, which take the user through the actions for that screen. The basic USB stick with the software is priced at 69 Pounds, or roughly Rs. 6,500. 

A free alternative to this is Eldy. The software is even more accessible and comes with Skype integration support. A lot of thought has gone into the design of the interface, as is evident from the separate buttons for “@” and several standard actions like Cut-Copy-Paste. Although it does have its share of problems with the help section being in Italian in one version, it is completely elderly oriented right from the point of installation to the close button.

Maintaining the PC – The essential tools for remote access

Your responsibility is not over once you have made the system easy to use. Any computer, elder friendly or not, requires maintenance. Especially the ones which will be used by elders might be more prone to accidental failures. For the times when you are not present there, you may still need to remotely access the machine. Out of the remote access software available, TeamViewer is the best as it offers both attended and unattended usage. That is, you can work on the machine even when it is being used by the person. Here’s how you can go forward setting it up:

Step 1: Download and Install TeamViewer software on both the controlling and the controllable machine, from the TeamViewer website. You need administrator access to do this.
Step 2: Select ‘Personal/Non-Commercial’use when prompted during installation for free usage
Step 3: After installing, run TeamViewer on both machines.
Step 4: Enter your User ID and password to log into the client, and then enter your partner’s ID to establish a desktop sharing session.
Step 5: Select Remote Control and click on Connect to Partner.
Step 6: When prompted, enter the password provided by your partner from the partner machine. You should now be able to see and have full access of the partner computer.

Conclusion

Setting up the proper hardware, software and applications as shown above can enable the elderly in your house to finally start using a computer without feeling anxious. Beyond all these tweaks that you do for them, they deserve the same patience and dedication that they showered upon you as a kid. And there’s much in it for you too. Remember the first time they taught you something that you thought impossible otherwise? Wouldn’t you like to see them feel the same happiness because you made it possible? 

This article was first published in February 2016 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit's articles in print first, subscribe here.​