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Research to make GPS technology more accessible for older people

A Social Sciences research project at Swansea University will investigate how older people use unfamiliar space.

The £300,000 project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will study groups of older people, who will be guided as pedestrians, passengers or drivers through an unfamiliar town projected in the University’s state-of-the-art Virtual Reality CAVE facility.

Researchers will then discuss the subjects’ responses to what they have experienced, and will ascertain their impressions of the town. One of the key factors to be explored is what prompts, signs and signals the subjects rely on to find their way about the unfamiliar environment.

The subjects will be asked to repeat the exercise in real life, in the same town used for the virtual reality experiment, and the responses will be measured again.

It is hoped that findings from the research will enable refinements to be made to current Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies, making navigational aids more accessible and user-friendly to older people.

And the research should also lead to the development of a toolkit for spatial planners, aiding the design of towns and cities with the needs of older people in mind.

The project is led by Professor Judith Phillips, Professor of Gerontology and Social Work and Head of the University’s School of Human Sciences.

Professor Phillips also directs the new Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing, and is co-director of the Older People and Ageing Research and Development Network (OPAN Cymru), which aims to enhance the quality of research into gerontology and strengthen collaboration between researchers, policy-makers and service providers.

Dr Phillips said: “In many respects, Wales already leads the rest of the world in its adoption of policies and strategies to improve the well-being of older people. Wales was the first country in Europe to have a national Strategy for Older People, not to mention a Commissioner for Older People.

“Wales has an ageing population and, whilst ageing is undoubtedly an immensely positive experience, it does raise issues surrounding how we care for older people, particularly those who are dependent, and it of course has an impact on the economy. We also live in a society that isn’t particularly tolerant of ageing or older people.

“Clearly there is much more research to be done to understand how we can improve on this position. I am confident that this new ESRC-funded project will make a real difference to our understanding of how older people familiarise themselves in unfamiliar towns and cities, which in turn should lead to measurable enhancements to existing technologies and spatial planning strategies.”

The project encompasses a range of partners from the Welsh Assembly Government, local authorities, the voluntary and commercial sectors, including Castleoak, Age Concern, the University of the Third Age, and the 50+ Network.

The Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing has established links with Canada, Sweden, Australia and Germany. The international reputation of Swansea’s research in this field was strengthened earlier this month, with Professor Phillips, Dr Sarah Hillcoat-Nallétamby and Andrew Dunning giving presentations at the Sixth European Congress of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, held in St Petersburg, Russia.

Professor Phillips was also recently elected Secretary of the Association’s European Region, with responsibility for its Social Science and Behavioural section.

For further information about the School of Human Sciences at Swansea University visit

Bethan Evans | alfa
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