A woman and two children use a tablet device

Connecting with Tech: Research explores how devices can help bring us together

Blake Eligh

Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it can also leave us feeling isolated and alone. Research from U of T Mississauga explores how technology can help connect us when we can’t be together in person.

Assistant Professor Cosmin Munteanu is a researcher with UTM’s Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (ICCIT) and co-director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab (TAG Lab) on U of T’s St. George campus.

Munteanu investigates how aging adults access and use technology, including how playing video games together can help foster intergenerational connections between grandparents and grandchildren and how to make the web safer for seniors.

His current research with the TAG Lab studies the role technology plays to connect us through family storytelling, cultural history and virtual gatherings.

Worth a thousand words
Launched in 2016, PhotoFlow is a technology-first take on a tradition common to many families—using old photos to prompt family storytelling.

“Every Christmas, my mother would pull out a shoebox full of family pictures and tell stories about random photos from the box,” says Munteanu. PhotoFlow is a prototype tablet app designed to help older generations easily create a sharable file of voice recordings synced with photos. Created with TAG Lab researcher and PhD computer science student Benett Axtell, the project helps seniors share history with younger generations and staff working in assisted living homes.

Culture and CrossRoads
A second project, CrossRoads, in development with computer science PhD student Amna Liaqat, will rely on cultural artefacts to help immigrant families bridge the cultural and generational divide.

“Immigration is a major disruption to culture,” Munteanu says. “As younger generations become accultured to a new place, resiliency can be lost through increasing isolation for older generations, and also for younger generations who might not even realize that something is being lost.” Through the project, families will be encouraged to share cultural artefacts like recipes, stories and songs to help foster connection to culture and family history.

VR enhancing end of life
A third project, Quality of Life at End of Life, is in development with ICCIT PhD student Sho Conte. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded study will use virtual reality headsets to help people in palliative care share immersive 360-degree virtual travel experiences with family and friends.

“Socializing is extremely important at end-of-life, and can help mitigate other problems,” Munteau says. “Immersive technology in a shared social context can help.”

“VR has a significant role to connect us and help us engage over the distance,” he continues. “It allows us to move together and engage with a richer environment. We can play ping-pong or engage in other activities while we chat, just as we do in the real world.”

Munteanu says he’s intrigued by the creative ways people are using technology to connect under the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. He notes that platforms like Slack, usually used for business project organization, are being repurposed for casual chats and photo sharing between neighbours, while others are using video conference calls to bring everyone together around the family dinner table.

Munteanu suspects new connections are being forged by those who are donating old technology to those in need. “I’m hearing about people donating older technology, like iPods and tablets that they might have lying around the house,” he says. “Every little bit of connection helps.”

Munteanu’s research is funded through UTM’s Research and Scholarly Activity Fund. He is cross-appointed to the Faculty of Information and the Department of Computer Science on the St. George campus. TAG Lab projects are supported by Canadian Institutes of Health Research and AGE-WELL NCE Inc.