BY Wesley Diphoko 5 MINUTE READ

Over 10,000 people are turning 65 every day, and by 2060, about one in four Americans will be older than that. This brings with it a slew of challenges, from affordable senior housing to abundant caregiving to efficient mobility solutions.

The latter category is where entrepreneur Ahmad Alghazi hopes to make a dent. For Alghazi, the path to greater mobility starts by reinventing the humble cane. Launching today, the Can Go is a high-tech cane equipped with a dozen sensors, GPS and activity tracking, a flashlight, and cellular data for emergency phone calls. It’s a bold new take on an age-old product, but it joins a growing movement of startups that want to take a bite out of the silver market, which could reach $15 trillion by 2030.

Stripping away the stigma

Can Go was designed to cater to three separate groups: those who worry about falling, those with chronic problems related to mobility (like arthritis), and those who need walking aids to recover after a stroke or a hip replacement surgery. It was developed in collaboration with Don Norman, a former Apple VP who spearheaded the field of user-friendly design in his industry bible The Design of Everyday Things. Ironically, Norman’s book, which first came out in 1988, features an entire chapter on the stigma of mobility devices. “I want you to make this chapter obsolete,” Norman told Alghazi when the pair first met over 10 years ago.

The key was to design a cane that wasn’t intimidating. “It had to be really easy to use, and it had to look like it was easy to use,” Norman says. “You want to design something that’s so attractive that everybody would want it.” In 1700s England, he says, the cane was seen as a status symbol. Why couldn’t it be made desirable again?

Research shows that older people are becoming more tech-savvy, but smart products can be intimidating. On the inside, Can Go is as high-tech as it gets. The product comes with a dozen built-in sensors that can track your activity, measure how much weight you’re putting on the cane, and your overall gait speed (more on that later). There’s a built-in sim card, too.

On the outside, however, Can Go looks like a snazzy, yes, but perfectly simple product. Much of that simplicity came down to the number of buttons on the handle. Instead of a single button that could let you perform all the tasks at once (Alghazi was tempted, but Norman warned him it could be too confusing for seniors), the team landed on three separate buttons, each with a clearly defined purpose: one to make a call, another to turn on a flashlight, and a third one to alternate between metrics, which appear on a display screen above it.

Leveraging tech for seniors

The need to connect every device to an app and track every breath we take with acute precision has led to a questionable breed of “smart products” that needn’t always exist. Meanwhile, humans have been using walking aids for centuries. Canes, in particular, exist to perform a simple function, so why the high-tech makeover?

For Alghazi, the mobility industry is long overdue for an update. The country’s birth rate has been declining for a decade, and “we’ll end up with a lot of seniors and no one to take care of them,” he says. A smart cane could help by doing two things: Help people stay independent longer and make the caring process more efficient. The former can be achieved by providing seniors with a range of mobility solutions that are easy to use (the cane is just a start). The latter is a little trickier.

The healthcare industry is racing toward a severe caregiver shortage that was made worse by the pandemic. But instead of one caregiver taking care of one senior, Alghazi believes that a tech-enabled cane can help one caregiver take care of “10, 100, and 1,000 other humans.” That the answer to our caregiver shortage is to replace carers with tech-enabled walking sticks sounds like a pretty dystopian vision of the future. A cane, however smart, can never replace human interaction, but its ability to track certain aspects of your health could certainly make it a helpful tool in a caregiver’s toolbox.

This is where gait speed comes into play. Put simply, gait speed refers to the time it takes for you to walk from point A to point B. In clinical settings, the metric is used to assess your mobility and predict how likely you are to fall, which can be associated with poor quality of life for older people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 36 million people report falling each year, which makes non-fatal falls a $50 billion problem. Typically, however, you would have to go to a doctor, who would perform a one-off test on the spot.

Thanks to the myriad sensors in Can Go, the same test can be done continuously, and passively, simply by using the cane. It starts collecting data as soon as you activate the cane. (Mercifully, the activation process doesn’t require an app, just a laptop with an internet connection.) In a matter of days, you get an initial gait speed score, which Alghazi says will be updated daily, allowing caregivers to assess how fast your arthritis is progressing, or how fast you’re recovering from that hip replacement surgery. This assessment, of course, would be done at a distance, allowing caregivers to keep track of several patients at once.

Eventually, the score unlocks a series of “care solutions” in partnership with various healthcare providers. If you’re struggling with stability, for example, Can Go might recommend Tai chi lessons. “Think of us as a platform,” says Alghazi. “We believe the medical experience will be a consumer experience.”

That Alghazi sees Can Go as a consumer good isn’t all the surprising, considering Norman’s advice to design a cane that people want, even if they don’t need it. The price tag reflects this, too. The final cost will come out at a whopping $399, though a limited number of canes will be made available for $299 to start, or almost 30 times the price of a wooden $10 Walmart cane. For now, you can reserve one for $20 on the company’s website. And when the company starts shipping them in the fall, you can be the proud owner of what is probably the world’s smartest cane.

The question is: Do you need it, or do you want it?