BLOG: How to enable easy video calls for the elderly

One day it happens. Elderly relatives, most common case being your own parents, become hospitalized. You are concerned and visit them on a daily basis, feel sorry for them being in different hospitals (despite their nearly 60-year long marriage) due to reasons beyond your control.

With all your years in the tech industry or perhaps just because you are a modern fellow with all the gadgets in your life, you feel utterly frustrated, and wonder how – if in any way – you could help them.

If only these smart phones and tablets were easy enough to use.

It is a known fact that most aged people have difficulties in using modern handheld devices. These phones and tablets are loaded with software and features, require good eyesight and accurate coordination of hands. There are endless configuration items, pop-up messages, software updates.

Physically handling these slippery devices is prone to problems. Touch screen based user interfaces expect punctual timing when using hands. There exist user accounts, passwords, verification codes – all that confusing clutter. Even a 40-something can become frustrated.

With abundant modern technology, it does not seem far fetched to request just one thing: easy and reliable video calls.

After one particularly grueling zig-zag rocketing across the city during rush hour traffic, going from one hospital to another and leaving my wife behind at the first so I could video call her from the second hospital, with the sole purpose of letting my parents see each other using our phones – an idea that I just had come up with or remembered from last summer Thailand trip – two things happened.

First, and much to the amusement of the doctors and nurses, my mother’s condition and mood improved dramatically as a result of seeing – not just hearing –  her husband for the first time in weeks. I can not exaggerate on this – this turned out to be a big thing, when everyone was already giving up on hope.

Second, I decided that one or another way this video calling must be permanently enabled for them, regardless of the challenges involved, and so that they can operate the devices independently without any assistance. I had some previous experience on KioWare and Linphone, so I thought I’d give them a try.

Ideal solution indeed turned out to be Android, KioWare, Linphone.

The use of Android based devices is strongly recommended for this purpose, because I have not been successful in setting up similar single-purpose devices based on Windows Phone or iOS. KioWare is a software product that enables you to turn your device into kiosk mode and Linphone turned out to be the best video calling software (and I did try them all exhaustively) for this purpose.

Here’s a direct link to KioWare (for Android) on Google Play Store for your convenience.

Below is a recipe for achieving the solution. I have abbreviated here greatly; you will need to review the KioWare and Linphone documentation. Hence this is a quick overview. We are very, very happy with the outcome and I wanted to share this, because I am sure there are a lot of people in similar situations.

Perhaps someone is living far away from his parents and wants something robust as the video call solution for non-technical elderly people.

Also, the Linphone automated video call answering mode enables for on-demand property surveillance – if needed. It can also be configured to work in stealth mode, i.e. the property surveillance device need not turn the screen on for the video call. Be sure you are familiar with privacy legislation in effect at your geographical locations and in your intended use cases.

If you will be installing equipment at a hospital as seen in the pictures above, you will need to agree in prior with the hospital officials. Also be prepared to invest in a high quality extension cord, not all hospital rooms have sufficient electrical outlets located near enough to the hospital bed – device chargers are needed. Double check that you are using allowed wall sockets.

RECIPE

  • 1 Samsung Galaxy J5
  • 1 Huawei MediaPad T1 10″ tablet
  • 2 KioWare Lite for Android licenses (attractively priced)
  • 1 Table / Bed attached adjustable bracket to support the weight of the tablet for no-hands operation
  • 2 Pre-paid 3G data subscription SIM cards
  • 1 Google account
  • 2 Linphone user accounts

Read KioWare documentation so that you have a general understanding of the software. Set up Linphone user accounts (as many as needed, this example assumes 2 new user accounts). My case was two parents at the hospital(s) and relatives, including myself, who also wanted to be able to video call my parents.

If you plan on making use of Linphone automatic answering due to specific patient needs, be sure to select cryptic, non-guessable Linphone usernames. You do not want to have unwanted prank calls to your beloved ones. I have not had the time to fully evaluate the security features available in the Linphone or in other layers of the solution. Consider this, do your own research.

Install the SIM cards in the devices, disable PIN code from both the SIM card and the device (these need to boot without any PIN codes or passwords asked). Register the devices using your own Google account, so that you can update and install software from app store. Install KioWare and Linphone.

Apply all updates including the base Android update, if one is available.

Configure the Android OS so that it does not attempt to download or apply patches. In fact carefully go through the settings to disable any activity that might be unwanted in the highly specific use of these devices. Notifications, background downloads, software updates – disable them all. This may take a bit of time and use of Google search.

Remove the Google account from the devices. This ensures the contact list, among many other things, is not synced and also not present anymore in the device. This is important! You want to have bare bone devices with no contact lists in them or any other user data, especially your own. These devices are going to be turned into almost fully neutral kiosk devices.

After removing the Google account ensure there are zero, nil, none contacts in the phone. With new SIM cards installed, your operator may have provisioned support and service contacts stored on the SIM itself. Delete them all, so Linphone contacts list is not cluttered with them.

Define all those Linphone user accounts you have created or that already exist and are intended to be at the disposal of the device user. Store these internally within the Linphone app in its contact list, assuming your device does not support SIP addressess in the ordinary phone contact list.

Only store the SIP address for each person such as johndoe@sip.linphone.org, do not store any mobile numbers in the Linphone app contacts, unless you are certain intended users can distinguish between making a video call and an ordinary call. I chose not to store anything else, but just the SIP addresses.

The only thing you will need the actual phone numbers is to deposit funds in the pre-paid subscriptions, if you chose to have pre-paid. You do not want to use well-known numbers, so the pre-paid is actually a fairly good choice.

Of course you could use only Wi-Fi in the devices, but I wanted the assurance of not being dependent on Wi-Fi.

Configure the Kioware so that it boots automatically and also set the Linphone as the only allowed application. This will require a bit of testing and reading the documentation, but is fairly straightforward.

You can use the demo mode of Kioware, which is what I did last year when we were traveling in Thailand and wanted to video call my parents during the trip. From a distance of about 8000 km’s and from low bandwidth connectivity in the northeast rural areas, we were able to have good quality video calls due to the efficiency of the Linphone streaming.

The very same tablet was configured for my parents with Kioware and Linphone at the time.

However, I would strongly recommend you purchase the Kioware licenses, they are attractively priced and you get rid of demo mode nag messages, in addition to supporting a company that has a good product. My total license costs for the solution were only about $100 and it is money well spent. The licensed Kioware Lite edition was sufficient for my needs.

If deploying a tablet or if one of the users has special requirements in terms of handling the device, do consider a bracket. I was able to purchase a tablet bracket for about $20 from a local gadget and device store and it turned out to be very sturdy and exact match for the needs.

This allows, in addition to the use of the automated answering in Linphone, a true hands-free solution for fully automated video calls.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCES

The big thing is that it works and that my parents can communicate using a video call with high voice and video quality within 1-2 seconds from initiating the call. The fact that other parent is configured for auto-answering is icing on the cake, he/she just needs to participate in the video call, no actions needed on his/her behalf.

The handheld phone running in KioWare – enabled kiosk mode was quickly learned by the other parent. There is the power button so that the whole device can be power recycled. Other than that, it just simply works as a dedicated Linphone video call device. Other parent learned to use the device (Samsung J5 phone) in a matter of minutes.

There have been two cases where Linphone, likely due to random and bypassing 3G carrier network performance problems, was not able to initiate the video. This was resolved by hanging up and immediately making another call. Logic of this was learned right away by the other parent, who is the one that initiates the calls between them.

For me it is an absolute success to be able to call my parents and have high a quality video call in place in 1-2 seconds from initiating the call. I need to work, I can not visit them every time I would like to, so this enables me to have a quick chat with them and see them at the same time. If you have been in a situation like this, you sure know what a big difference it makes.

These video call devices are in addition to ordinary mobile phones.

As a summary integrating Android, KioWare and Linphone resulted in a huge improvement in quality of life for my parents. There are some commercial products on the market for this kind of needs, but – as described above – there is also this DIY path for those inclined to a fast resolution by using off-the-shelf components.

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