AAL helps extend HALE

IEC work is central to global efforts to help the elderly and people with disabilities live a healthier, more active and independent life

By Morand Fachot

Making life easier for an ageing population and for people with disabilities is becoming a priority in most countries. ICT (information and communication technology), audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment provide an ever wider range of opportunities to enhance the quality of life for these growing sectors of the population. Several IEC TCs (Technical Committees) are playing a leading role in this domain with their activities in various aspects of AAL (Active Assisted Living.

The Paro interactive therapeutic robot allows the benefits of animal therapy for patients in environments where the presence of animals presents difficulties (Photo: Paro)

Ensuring a healthier older population

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), the percentage of the world's population aged over 60 years will double from about 11% to 22% between 2000 and 2050. The absolute number of people aged 60 years and over is expected to increase from 605 million to 2 billion over the same period.

HALE (health-adjusted life expectancy), is an indicator developed by the WHO that gives the average number of years that an individual is expected to live in a healthy state. It is obviously shorter than life expectancy itself and is usually followed by loss of independence and the need for extensive nursing care and medical treatment over a number of years.

Many countries have adopted policies aimed at extending healthy life expectancy to meet human and economic imperatives. The wellbeing of the elderly is a moral obligation but the cost of soaring healthcare in general must be controlled.

The elderly are not the only group of people who need better access to services; persons with certain disabilities need this too. A number of IEC TCs have been developing International Standards in domains that provide access to both categories for a long time.

To further support AAL developments the IEC SMB (Standardization Management Board) has established SyC (System Committee) AAL, and IEC TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment, has set up TA (Technical Area) 16: AAL, accessibility and user interfaces.

Moderating the impact of visual impairment

According to the WHO, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision. ICT, audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment provide tools that may allow the visually impaired to take part in a number of activities, including work, and to benefit from certain services.

ICT equipment has for a long time included both software solutions, such as OCR (optical character recognition), character magnification or voice recognition systems and hardware including adapted or on-screen keyboards.

Access to TV services for the visually impaired has greatly improved over the years as regulators have demanded that broadcasters provide services for the visually impaired. These have led to the development of audio description which makes TV services more accessible to the blind and visually impaired by explaining what is happening on screen, using the gaps in dialogue. TC 100 has developed Standards for the provision of audio description, including text services and subtitling.

The visually impaired face additional problems when using TV equipment, such as operating a remote control device, not being able to see subtitles, navigating channels and TV inputs, using additional data (text) services provided by the broadcaster, initial setup of the TV and its daily operation.

To lessen these difficulties IEC TC 100 has developed a Standard that "specifies the text-to-speech functionality for a (broadcast) [digital] receiver with a text-to-speech system".

The visually impaired often have difficulty in reading or are unable to read books. Audiobooks, which first appeared in the 1930s on LPs (long-playing records) and have proven very popular in many countries, have helped overcome this problem; they are now available in digital format.

To ensure compatibility with music industry and multimedia standards, as well as how to present and navigate an audiobook effectively, TC 100/TA 10: Multimedia e-publishing and e-book technologies, developed IEC 62571:2011, Digital audiobook file format and player requirements (see article on audiobooks in e-tech, January/February 2012).

A November 2014 TC 100 AGS (Advisory Group on Strategy) meeting also looked at identifying opportunities for standardization on wearable systems and equipment by carrying out a study on market trends, use cases and challenges for such devices.

Dealing with disabling hearing loss

According to the WHO, over 360 million people in the world have disabling hearing loss. The human impact of hearing impairment is severe; it affects social and emotional interaction and academic achievement as well as employment and career prospects. It also has severe adverse economic and societal consequences.

IEC TC 29: Electroacoustics, has developed a dozen International Standards in the IEC 60118 series to cover measurements of electroacoustic and performance characteristics for various types of hearing aids. TC 29 has also developed Standards for audio-frequency induction-loop systems and equipment for assisted hearing, which allow wearers of specially-equipped hearing aids to get a wireless signal transmitted directly to their ear in places like museums or theatres.

For access to audio, video and multimedia services, IEC 62216:2009, Digital terrestrial television receivers for the DVB-T system, which provides details for the provision of audio description, also specifies recommendations for the provision of text services and subtitling. In some countries 100% of programmes aired by publicly-funded broadcasters offer subtitles; a much smaller percentage include audio description.

Extending healthy life expectancy

Some governments, such as that in Japan, are adopting policies aimed at increasing the nation's healthy life expectancy through preventive care, the management of chronic conditions and by encouraging individuals to manage their own health better.

Many European countries are also looking at AAL as offering interesting prospects for enhancing the lives and independence of older people and opportunities for the future. In conjunction with the European Commission they have allocated EUR 600 million to fund R&D and innovation projects in the AAL domain. This trend can also be observed in other countries and regions.

AAL can offer solutions to extend healthy life expectancy with the introduction of consumer electronics and connected and wearable devices in the healthcare and wellness environments.

Healthier lifestyle and wellbeing can be enhanced with the use of devices including electronic pedometers, tablets and smartphones for monitoring and improving physical activities.

Connected devices, such as appliances with communication functions (TV, dial or mobile phone, tablets, etc.), may allow remote health monitoring of patients with chronic illnesses and the elderly who live alone.

Tablets with management and information sharing service are being developed to prevent cognitive impairment. Studies suggest that using such devices can potentially enhance cognitive functions.

Another central contribution to AAL is made by IEC TC 62: Electrical equipment in medical practice, and its SCs (Subcommittees), which play a central role in supporting advances in healthcare equipment through their standardization work.

This work has now been extended to robotic technology, which offers interesting prospects for AAL applications. IEC SC 62A, which covers common aspects of electrical equipment used in medical practice, decided to set up a JWG (Joint Working Group) with ISO (International Organization for Standardization), SC 62A/JWG 9, to "develop general requirements and guidance related to the safety of medical electrical equipment and systems that utilize robotic technology". This work will include aids for the disabled (see article on IEC SC 62A/JWG 9 in e-tech, May 2013).

More IEC activities in the robotic domain are on the horizon with the creation by the SMB of SG (Strategy Group) 7: Electrotechnical applications of robot technologies, in October 2013.

Long-standing IEC work in AAL

The IEC has for many years actively facilitated the development of AAL solutions. In October 2011 the SMB established SG 5: Ambient Assisted Living, following a recommendation of its ahG (ad hoc Group) 29, Ambient Assisted Living. In 2014 SG 5 was transformed into a SEG (Systems Evaluation Group), and eventually into a Systems Committee, SyC AAL (Active Assisted Living). The scope of this SyC is to:

  • Create a vision of AAL that takes account of the evolution of the market
  • Enable accessibility of AAL systems and user interfaces
  • Enable cross-vendor interoperability of AAL systems, products and components
  • Communicate the work of the SyC to the IEC itself and the market to foster a strong community of stakeholders

Syc AAL will hold its first meeting at DKE, the German organization responsible for the development of standards and safety specifications in the areas of electrical engineering, electronics and IT, in Frankfurt on 3-4 March 2015.

In addition to this SyC, TC 100 has created TA 16 to address certain aspects of AAL, such as "accessibility, usability and specific user interfaces related to audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment within the scope of TC 100" (see article on IEC TC 100/TA 16 in this e-tech).

As AAL becomes a priority for many countries that are faced with a rapidly ageing population and the prospect of soaring healthcare costs, IEC standardization work will prove crucial for the development of a sector that is set to provide improved health and a better quality of life for millions as well as major industrial and economic benefits.

Samsung Tablet Studies suggest that using tablets can potentially enhance cognitive functions (Photo: Samsung)
ind-1_paro_org The Paro interactive therapeutic robot allows the benefits of animal therapy for patients in environments where the presence of animals presents difficulties (Photo: Paro)
Subtitling TV programme subtitles allow millions to enjoy the full benefit of television