We are quickly distracted these days and communication technology is changing faster than ever. Many older adults are having a hard time adapting to the latest ways of staying in touch, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. We wanted to connect these people with the social networks of today, using the safe and familiar ways of yesterday.
Beppie forms a bridge between the modern world of instant messaging, and the tactile experience of sending a paper letter. At the core of this concept is a "digital mailbox", which prints incoming messages as postcards, and sends out handwritten letters as messages. This interface is made completely intuitive, making full use of things you already know if you have ever sent a postcard. It can send written letters, drawings, stickers, or whatever you like to put on the page. The letter is then addressed using fail-proof "stamps", which can be detected no matter where they are pasted. The device doesn't even have a button!
On the other end of the line, no special apps are required; the beppie-platform can communicate with familiar media like e-mail and Telegram. This makes sending a message to granny as simple as sending a message to anyone else. The message is automatically printed so that she can read it at her own pace. She can answer by writing a reply and pasting on a "reply-stamp".
The design of the device went through 5 versions, each iteration having to answer different use case scenarios and technical requirements like production techniques. In terms of the basic interaction, we went through slight variations of the same concept (see below): avoid buttons, just write a letter and put it in the device. The only extra step that is needed is putting on some sort of adress-identifier, so we can detect where it needs to go.
We designed an interface-layer behind the scenes which links with dedicated apps and third party applications, so that the platform can offer a range of other services. This means that functionality is not limited to direct messaging, but might at a later point in development also be used to order your groceries, recieve relevant newsletters, plan a trip or even handle your banking. Input can be given through written letters, but the device can also print forms with checkboxes and letter slots for more reliable automation. We have paid special attention so that the system guarantees safety, privacy and user-friendliness, which checks whether the sender is known & verified by the user, anonymises information wherever possible, and only sends out gives out the necessary information to trusted applications.
During visits to an elderly care home, we found out that many elderly people feel lonely. This is backed by the numbers: 56.5% of elderly people in the Netherlands indicates that they are lonely. We also found out that many of them are struggling with modern communication technology. Even if they are able to send messages, they often don't bother because it is too frustrating. Meanwhile, many younger people told us that they don't really know what to do with a postcard either, and feel a barrier towards calling someone. In theory, it's possible to get in touch, but it won't be a fluent exchange. We figured that these issues might be connected; Your loved ones feel further removed if you have a hard time reaching them. This is compounded by the fact that physically visiting others tends to get harder as you get older and less mobile (and that was before the corona-pandemic hit us all). Such a shame! Gramps & granny would love to hear from you, and there is so much to learn from someone who might already have a century of experience in living. To close the gap, we set out to make a contribution in closing the gap towards meaningful connections.
Beppie was initially our own project, in which we collaborated a lot with other organisations. Nedap and the University of Twente helped us out to realise our vision through mentoring, advice and technical support. We also often visited elderly home de Posten to talk with residents and staff to understand their perspectives. Our first (working) interactive demo-model was on display at the Mind the Step-exposition during the Dutch Design Week, which generated a lot of feedback and media-attention, including items on RTL Bright, BNR Nieuwsradio, de Tubantia, Radio 1 and het Jeugdjournaal.