A man uses a large mobile handset as he sits on a bench in Chieti, Italy, on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Vivendi SA agreed to enter exclusive talks with Telefonica SA over the sale of its GVT unit, favoring the Spanish phone company's mostly cash offer for the Brazilian broadband provider over a counterbid from Telecom Italia SpA. Photographer: Marc Hill/Bloomberg
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A British start-up backed by some of the world’s largest technology groups is aiming to reinvent the smartphone for elderly users – to address a market that the UN suggests may be one-fifth of the population by 2020.

Zone-V, a Cambridge group founded by former Nokia executives, is about to complete a fundraising round to support the launch of a range of devices that would help people who are partially sighted or hard of hearing.

Among them is a new smartphone that will use sensory innovations to make it easier for elderly people to use.

Smartphone technology has developed at such a pace that many elderly consumers feel left behind, and struggle to handle ever thinner handsets offering a bewildering array of apps and user interfaces.

While the number of over 65s accessing the internet in the UK has risen by a quarter in the past year, according to regulator Ofcom – helped by a threefold increase in the use of tablet computers – many still find phones hard to operate.

A survey carried out by the Silversurfer website for the Financial Times last month found that almost 60 per cent of over 50s said that technology was not being adapted to their needs.

Zone-V will use so-called haptic touch technology that allows partially sighted or blind people to feel changes on their smartphone screens, which can highlight where apps are. In future, haptic technology is hoped to be able to provide virtual keyboards on a screen using touch. The phone will also feature innovations around speaker technology to improve the acoustics for the hard of hearing.

Zone-V has already raised funds from ARM and Qualcomm, two of the largest chipmakers in the world, which are supplying some of the technology used in the devices.

Foxconn, the Chinese smartphone maker that builds the iPhone for Apple, is expected to develop the Zone-V phones, and is in talks about coming on board as an investor, according to one informed person. The group is close to “raising several million pounds” in the latest fundraising round, he added.

Zone-V declined to comment.

Zone-V has had talks with network partners, which have expressed interest in selling its phones, given how few devices are designed specifically for one of the largest and most lucrative groups of consumers. At present, the market for mobile devices for the elderly has been addressed in scale only by Doro, the Swedish maker of phones.

Zone-V’s new phone will be marketed to the wider population of older people, and users able to choose from several different “modes” of operation – ranging from a normal Android-based smartphone experience, to a simplified version with just basic apps and messaging.

Rather than aiming to compete with the latest and thinnest smartphones, the device will be purposely thick and chunky – allowing space for a larger, and longer-lasting rechargeable battery. In addition, the size and the shape is intended to help sufferers of arthritis.

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