Marilyn Tremaine – Rutgers University, USA

What contextual factors make older adults unique?

As an older adult (I will be 78 years old 4 days after CHI ends), I define the key time one becomes older as that  time when one loses close daily contact with much of their current world.  Usually, this is via retirement, but can also come about because of illness, disability or personal loss.  It is typically after one turns 55, but some people actively work until they are 90 or 100, and because of their active involvement with others through work are not really what I would define as an older adult. Many things change in the environment and our social world throughout our lifetime.  We learn and adjust to these changes.  When we stop this adjustment, we can be defined as an older adult.

Yes, as we age, our cells do not regenerate, and we become less able to do multiple tasks, but it is not the failure of these cells that make us older. It is the loss of contact with others that the failure creates that make us older. For example, someone who suffers from hearing loss loses contact with the world and, as research has shown, is more likely to slip into Alzheimers.  Much of the work on developing interfaces for the aging population focuses on building an enhancement for a decaying skill, such as hearing or eyesight, but I would suggest that we work on the loss of contact with other humans as a more general approach to take.  For example, hearing aids are currently pathetic because they don’t take into account the loss of high frequency sounds which is how we cognitively select the sounds we want to hear.  Instead, the speech to text transfer of a phone call to one’s mobile phone works and maintains the contact.

Why do you think aging is an interesting area to research?

An obvious answer to this question is personal selfishness because of my age, but let me not try to be cute.  I have seen serious problems with my husband’s parents coping with technology as they aged.  For example, they were locked inside their new car in their dark underground parking garage because the door handles were elegantly hid in the door panel and as black as the doors.  They took this same car back to the dealer because the inside light would not turn off.  They did not know that it was timed to stay on for 2 minutes after they left the car.  The first of these problems occurred in winter in an open Toronto parking garage.  They could have died except someone heard them beeping the horn.  The second problem was simply embarrassing to a very proud couple.  I am certain that their experience was not unique.  They were simply not tied in to the changing technology in the design of cars.  In the workaday world, colleagues would have discussed these changes and they might have ridden in other’s cars with the new technology.   The door handles were designed to be attractive, but no one thought about the difficulty in finding them in a dark car.  The light shutoff delay was designed to be useful, but seniors may not have been aware of this capability being possible.

I doubt if anyone considered how older adults might respond to the changes in the car design and technology, in part, because, as is with much of design, people think of themselves as the user.  Working with older users is more likely to get technology builders to think about user issues in general.

But research on how to design for aging users is very challenging because of the wide variability in what constitutes a senior citizen, and also the large variability in anyone’s experience with modern technology.  We all seem to be working on one small part of the problem such as a particular disability rather than trying to build a more general picture of what the average older adult does not understand about modern technology.  Maybe, if we thought about what we would teach in a class at a senior center, we would come up with appropriate topics to consider that older folks have trouble with.

What themes have you explored in your work?

The primary work I have carried out on aging research is the development of computer-based tools to aid in stroke rehabilitation.  These include two virtual reality interfaces, one in which an individual wearing a sensing glove played catching and reaching games and a second in which an individual using feet attached to sensing boots flew a plane or drove a speedboat around obstacles.  This work was done with Dr. Grigore Burdea who headed the stroke rehabilitation project at Rutgers.  In later work, I helped to develop pictorial interfaces for stroke victims who had lost their language ability and could not read, write, understand or talk or some combination of these losses.  This work was done with Dr. Perry Cook at Princeton University.

I have more recently been working on the development of spatial skills in individuals through the use of computer games.  This relates to the development of technology for aging because these skills are highly relevant to individuals using modern technology and often missing in older adults who grew up without computer games.

In the design of the rehabilitation equipment, we found that a key problem in rehab was getting people to coordinate muscle usage, in particular, hand and ankle pronation.  We set up VR tasks for our subjects that required the use of more than one muscle group and enhanced their slight movements so that they felt that they were actively participating in the games.  A neuroscientist in our research group identified the muscle movements we wanted to encourage. The tasks adapted to the user’s improvement in coordination.

What research methods have you used to engage older adults in the design process or otherwise elicit relevant design criteria?

Our virtual reality systems appealed very much to the male stroke victims.  The environment made them feel whole again as if they were performing at a normal level.  We did not have the same response from female participants.  They tended to be older and the games also tended to be more physically active ones that appealed to males.  All of our subjects gave us verbal feedback on what they liked and did not like about our interfaces.

What aspects of aging, or what challenges in aging research, will continue to be relevant in decades to come, and why?

Technology is changing rapidly.  When we resolve how to design one particular technology to an interface, e.g., the use of Bluetooth, suddenly another one is developed that works differently and that is suddenly coming into use, e.g., the re-entry of television antennae, now that technology has made them much more receptive.  Seniors have difficulty realizing that speakers and TVs work in their house even though disconnected from their source.  In the future they will need to learn that the TV must again be connected.  But this is a simplistic example.  More to the point is the fact that much research needs to be done if we are to understand where the problems lie and how they can be solved.

How will applications of the future differ from today for older adults?

I believe that we are becoming a cashless society requiring everyone to identify themselves with personally carried technology and passwords.  Globally, this technology will be different affecting all who travel.  Our houses, our transportation, our interactions will all be run by interfaces.  There will be privacy invasions and hang-ups where everything fails and older adults will not know what to do to fix their situation.  There will also be serious prejudices, e.g., riding in a car without a driver that will cause seniors to avoid technology usage.

What are you hoping to get out of attending this workshop?

I am eagerly looking forward to my move to the University of Toronto where I will have like-minded colleagues to work with and where I will again be doing CHI work!  I hope to build a large number of connections with others at the workshop and to be more connected with what is going on in this area of research.  I was amazed when I visited the TAGLab that I was the oldest person that had ever been in the lab. My 1997 move to the United States (generated by the great job offer my husband received) brought me work in an Information Systems and then, a Computer and Electrical Engineering Department.  My research therefore focused on software engineering and global software development in order to effectively place my Ph.D. Students. 


  1. Adamovich, S. V., Merians, A. S., Boian, R., Lewis, J.A., Tremaine, M., Burdea, G.S., Recce, M. and Poizner, H. A Virtual Reality Based Exercise System for Hand Rehabilitation Post-Stroke. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Vol 14, No. 2, April 2005.
  1. Deutsch, J. E., Lewis, J. A., Whitworth, E., Boian, R., Burdea, G. and Tremaine, M. Formative Evaluation and Preliminary Findings of a Virtual Reality Telerehabilitation System for the Lower Extremity. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Vol 14, No. 2, April 2005.
  1. Jack, D., Boian, R., Merians, A., Tremaine, M., Burdea, G. C., Poizner, H., Adamovich, S.V. and Recce, M.(2001) Virtual Reality Based Stroke Rehabilitation. IEEE Transactions on Virtual Reality, Vol. 9, No. 3,  September 2001, pp. 303-318.
  1. Nikolova, S., Tremaine, M. and Cook, P. Click on bake to get cookies: guiding word-finding with semantic associations. In Proceedings of the ASSETs 2010 Conference, ACM Digital Library ( ), 2010.
  1. Nikolova, S., Ma, X., Tremaine, M. and Cook, P. Vocabulary navigation made easier. In Proceedings of IUI’10, ACM Digital Library ( ), 2010, 361-364.