Technology

Dakim: Keeping Seniors Mentally Active


The company's [m]Power was a gaming hit in the nursing-home market. Now it's moving into the crowded home market and developing next-generation systems

Dan Michel was nursing his father through a battle with Alzheimer's when he made an unexpected but welcome observation. Michel found that when he did crosswords, read, or played cards with his dad, the elderly man acted more like his old self. "His mood changed a lot," Michel says. "He was more with it, happier, and more willing to engage in activities."

The experience inspired Michel to invent a video game system specifically for older people. In 2001, in the midst of caring for his dad, he founded Dakim and rigged up a crude version of the system he imagined. He knew it had to be simple—a touchscreen device that required no installation or setup—and varied enough to keep players coming back. In 2003, Dakim introduced the [m]Power Cognitive Fitness System and sold it to more than 300 senior-living facilities in 34 states. And in May, Dakim introduced its first home version of the game, joining the growing ranks of companies that expect greater demand for technology that helps seniors remain at home longer. The goal? To avoid the costs and lack of independence associated with assisted living and nursing facilities.

[M]Power includes 120 different games, each offered at five skill levels. In one, called Keep Your Eyes Open, players are asked to watch short scenes from old movies, and then recall such details as the characters' names and what they said. Another, The Violin, invokes recordings of famous classical musicians, and even a scene from Jack Benny's TV show, to engage players in a tutorial on the instrument. The games are designed to exercise a number of cognitive skills, including long-term memory, short-term memory, and critical thinking. But Michel was careful to make sure they were also fun, and relevant to his audience. "They had to be so much fun people would want to play them long term," he says.

Competition in the Home Market

Norma Gonzales participated in a beta test of Dakim's home version, and was surprised by how much she enjoyed the device, especially since she hadn't been all that into video games before. "I love math, so I love that some games involve arithmetic," says Gonzales, a retired gas-company executive who turns 80 this month. She was so intrigued she went on Dakim's Web site to learn more about the company. There, she discovered that Dakim's chief scientific adviser is Gary Smalls, director of the University of California at Los Angeles' Center on Aging and author of The Memory Bible, a book that Gonzales had read. "It's very impressive," she says. "I feel confident the games are tailored to people who want to keep up their mental abilities." She adds that she has noticed an improvement in her ability to remember names of people she's met and specific details in books she is reading.

But the home market is likely to present Dakim with far more challenges than the nursing-home segment has. The company priced the unit at $2,299, plus $19.99 per month. There are a handful of more established and less expensive competitors, including Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program for PCs ($395) and Brain Age for Nintendo's (7974.T) DS handheld system (about $20 for the game, $130 for the device).

More generally, purveyors of brain games must also contend with a dearth of scientific evidence that mental fitness exercises will slow cognitive decline or prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Next-Generation Systems Coming

Dakim's techies are hard at work on technology they hope will satisfy other medical ends. They've developed next-generation systems that can track each player's cognitive function over time, and then report any changes directly to family members or doctors. Such capabilities could be useful for detecting small strokes or early signs of dementia. But Michel, who spent 30 years as an advertising executive in Los Angeles before founding Dakim, says he won't offer that technology until he's sure there's more of a demand for it. Many seniors prefer to keep their game-playing private, he says, for fear that if they do poorly and someone is watching them, they'll be moved against their will into a more stringently controlled setting. "Their biggest fear: Is this a test?" Michel says.

Dakim has raised about $15 million in venture capital—plenty, Michel says, to continue to expand the company's customer base. And even though his father died in 2004 at age 92, Michel's work is still guided by what he observed about the aging brain as he read, played, and interacted during his years as the primary caregiver. "Those activities," it turns out, "were cognitively stimulating."

Weintraub is a senior writer for BusinessWeek's Science Technology department.

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