Grannophone Helps You Stay In Touch

Whether it’s distance, pandemics, or both that separate you from your elderly loved ones, what’s the best idea for communicating with them so they don’t suffer from loneliness on top of issues like dementia? We’d say it’s probably something like [Stefan Baur]’s Grannophone.

Back in late 2020, a Twitter user named [Nitek] asked the Internet what could be done in the way of a grandma-friendly video-conferencing solution, provided Grandma has a TV and a broadband internet connection. At first, [Stefan] was like, just get her an old iPad and FaceTime with her. But the question got him thinking. And prototyping.

Grannophones are essentially Linux machines with a video-capable SIP client connected over a VPN for privacy reasons. In simple mode, picking up the handset of one Grannophone will call the other, but more complicated configurations are possible. We particularly like that replacing the handset automatically obscures the camera. That’s a nice touch.

At this point, the Grannophone is a work in progress. The idea is that they be extremely easy to build at the kitchen table, like on the order of disposable Swedish furniture. If you can contribute to the project, please do. Be sure to check out the demonstration video after the break.

On the other hand, if Granny is 1337, you could always video-conference in terminal.

20 thoughts on “Grannophone Helps You Stay In Touch

  1. I really like it! From some of the family members I had, I would skip switching the video to the TV to avoid confusing the person. But if the person can handle that ok, it certainly is a nice touch for poor eyesight. Good job on eliminating all complexity for the person in need of assistance! The use of a handset is great, as that will remain recognizable for many people with dementia…

    Makes me wonder… when the current under-20 population gets to the age where dementia is a concern, what type of tech will they retain a familiarity with?

    1. “Makes me wonder… when the current under-20 population gets to the age where dementia is a concern, what type of tech will they retain a familiarity with?”

      Good question. I had a family member with dementia.
      Personally, I hope that a) dementia will be cured by then or b) that their life expectancy won’t allow them to get there in first place. It’s the best for that generation, really, I’m afraid.
      Back in the 1970s, a future society also had a solution c) for this – the carrousel. See Logan’s Run.

      1. From personal experience I have a family member, an engineer, who can no longer dial a phone or put a DVD into the player. And not like a physical impairment, it’s more doesn’t understand that DVD has to go in player for movie to work and even at that can’t really grok the idea of it all anyway.
        I would love to think things that are engrained that you do every single day would keep being hard wired when dementia sets in but tragically that doesn’t seem to be true, at least in this case.

        1. Hi. The Grannophone guy here.

          Thank you for your interesting feedback. The result with the DVD player is kinda obvious, I think – Dementia “kills” newest memories first. Now, I don’t know how old your family member is (I’m aware there’s also early onset Dementia), but they probably didn’t have DVD players in their childhood.

          *Dialing* a phone – yeah, that might be problematic as well, they might be stumped by not knowing what number to dial. But I would be really interested to learn how they respond to an old, say, 1950s-1960s style telephone that has a electromechanical bell – would they pick up the handset if it rings, or would it still confuse them? If they still know how to pick up a handset, a Grannophone would at least work for incoming calls.

          For outbound calls, I really hope that you can find some way of telling them that they just need to pick up the handset (in that case, the Grannophone would be set to auto-dial one predefined contact). Are they still able to read and follow simple, written instructions?

          1. Had to really think about it. Guy is in his 80’s and was early adopter for everything so has been using DVDs for 30 years.
            He also has a bunch of LPs and, though I’ve never tested it, he could almost certainly put the record on the platter but no way he could figure out how to push the Phono input button to get his simple stereo to work.
            I admit I didn’t have time to look at this article in depth but yeah a “regular” looking telephone may work. He had a regular phone but it’s actually a pain because it has to go through the cable company these days and that confuses the heck out of him.
            Actually I imagine just a regular phone looking device, with a screen sure, but you just pick it up and a voice (AI, Siri whatever) simply asks you who you would like to call. I think even in bad days he could handle that. I’m basically describing a digital operator. But I think the tech exists now to make it seamless enough he wouldn’t notice it was a fake and that would be so super beneficial.
            Even now unlocking an iPhone or iPad is a step more than necessary and it’s really frustrating for all parties.
            Thanks for your work on this and I’ll give it the attention it deserves when I have some time.

        2. Hi craig,

          Thank you for your additional feedback below. There’s no reply link underneath it, so I hope you don’t mind me attaching my reply here.
          DVDs became publicly available in late 1996 in Japan, probably even later in the EU and the US. That kinda supports my theory that it’s just “too new” for the level of dementia your family member has reached.

          Regarding the LPs, I think there are two ways you could “tinker” to allow him to listen to them again. Either add something that selects the amp’s Phono input once it detects some kind of interaction with the record player (i.e. tonearm being moved manually, or a change in weight – due to the additional weight of the LP), or go the really old-fashioned route with a classic mechanical Gramophone (yes, the one with one m, not two n’s). Though the old pickup needles/diamonds might damage newer LPs and you also might have to adjust the speed somehow … (I think the mechanical ones used 78rpm by default) so you might want to check that first before putting his favorite LP on there. ;)

          If you have the time and patience to give it a try, I think it would be very interesting to find out exactly what technology your family member still remembers. Like, approach it from both ends of the timescale, so to speak. You already know DVDs are too new. How about compact cassettes? VHS video tapes? Analog magnetic tape and optical film reels? Telephones of various eras (candlestick, rotary dial, touch-tone)? Radios?
          The results could provide some useful hints on how to make his life easier.

          Since you assume a regular phone from the 1950s/1960s would still work for him – I think I saw some 3D models of phones from that era on thingiverse. It should be rather easy to adapt one of those models to serve as the base for a Grannophone handset (you could place the screen on the wall behind it as a “magic mirror” of sorts). You would need access to a 3D printer, or use a printing service, though, to follow through with that idea. The idea behind the minimal Grannophone model shown in the pictures was that everybody can assemble it without the need for special/expensive tooling. But if you have more sophisticated tools at your disposal – hey, by all means, go for it (and please share your altered designs with the community, either on thingiverse or on github)!

          Oh, and regarding the idea with the fake, AI operator – well, that might work, but I’d actually suggest a more low-tech approach. *BE* his operator (you can take turns with other family members, of course). If you use a PBX software like Asterisk, and connect the Grannophone to it, it should be possible to have it auto-dial one primary contact (or cycle through a list of contacts depending on date/time/whatever). The person that picks up will act as the operator, dial the person he wants to talk to, and patch him through.

      2. Oh, dementia? If zoomers and gen a still have long life expectancy (doubtful) then they will still be at work.
        And they had a concept of Ättestupa much earlier than the 1970s. And most “civilized” countries are bringing back ritual suicide under euphemisms like MAiD. I expect those to get very popular once the last three or four generations realize that the lifestyle that was sold to them when they were young spells out forty years of lonely hell for 80% of people in their later years.

    2. ” The use of a handset is great, as that will remain recognizable for many people with dementia…”

      I second that. A physical item with a single, clear purpose is priceless.

      A traditional telephone, a radio, a flash light, a piano.. These are all items that were mostly same for decades.

      All other solutions will require thinking, concentration, explicit interaction with something.

      A smartphone is the absolute worst solution, because everything is being hidden by symbols and virtual/abstract concepts.

      I’m speaking from experience, by the way. I had a family member who was in hospital, in coma. When said member woke up, it demanded for the smartphone. Unfortunately, the bad GUI was too confusing for the brain at this stage, still. That family member was depressed and despaired that the smartphone was “broken”. For a while, a traditional phone was needed at the bed. Which was a) very expensive in hospital b) a bureaucratic nightmare to get access to.

    3. I have noticed that in a lot of childrens’ TV programs, phones still ring and have handsets, police cars still go deedaa deedaa instead of wooooooOOOOOO OOOOOOooooooW, dinner is cooked in lots of saucepans boiling away on a stove, and cars are still powered by an engine. There is hope yet.

  2. This sounds awesome. We bought my MIL a Portal at the beginning of the pandemic. She’s 86 with all her marbles, and it took a lot of effort to get her using it. She’s quite deaf, and a lot of the initial support was done with a combination of mobile phone and action/gesture from outside her window while she held up the portal and attempted to follow our instructions. Also ‘tapping’ a screen was not something that came naturally.

    Now, 3 years later she won’t use anything else for contacting family. I still run the FB account we had to set up for her to make the thing work and FB has discontinued the Portal line, so we’re desperately hoping that her Portal will go the distance, although we do have a spare.

      1. Hi! The Grannophone guy, once more.

        The main problem with these proprietary devices (or apps) is that the price for a commercial product would need to be so high that the majority of the intended audience wouldn’t be able to afford it. That’s why all those companies are basically facing the same dilemma – increasing the price won’t work, so once they’ve burned through their budget/venture capital, they need to shut down, either the product line or the entire company.

        Let’s face it: Such a device will never be a commercially viable product.

        That’s why I’m hoping the community approach will catch on.

  3. I tried something similar for my parents and am quite impressed how little support for controlling videoconferencing software (teams, whatsapp, zoom ….) there is programatically from another program.
    I ended up writing together some python code, cable it up with an arduino based button pannel and tried using jitsy as the backend. unfortunatly this breask every now and then as the public jitsy instances get updated and do not work anymore with older browser versions….

    if someone has ideas to imrpve on it. feel free to have a look and fork ->

    1. Hi! :)

      I’m the guy that came up with the Grannophone. And what you describe is exactly why I decided to not go the browser route. Browsers consume way more RAM and computing power when running a video conferencing web site, than a simple SIP client.
      Plus they’re finicky as hell when it comes to remote controlling/scripting their actions.
      Some SIP clients, on the other hand, can be controlled via the command line, or even via TCP/IP, I think.
      Also, SIP can work peer to peer, so you don’t depend on a public server instance and don’t have to host one yourself, either.
      That said, the picture you’re showing on your github page, with the hardware buttons? The descriptions look like you’re located in Germany, or at least in a German-speaking country. If you want to stick with Jitsi for your family video calls, I would recommend using, they have a pretty large and stable Jitsi installation that is even GDPR-safe, due to all their servers being hosted in the EU. Plus if you’re in the “D/A/CH” region, latency should be pretty low.

      Kind Regards,
      Stefan Baur

      PS: You can find the Grannophone github repo here: (not much code there yet, this is currently mainly used for the case designs)

  4. The demo is really great. For the video switching, I think an electronic HDMI switcher is enough. From what I know, my grandparents don’t use more than a standard terrestrial set-top box on their TV. CEC support has to be considered eventually. The only way we can manage having a videoconference with them is by having another family member on-site.

    This project is totally doable, maybe the solutions aren’t that popular because they are as popular as personal videoconferencing.

    1. Hi! :) The Grannophone guy here, again.

      Glad that you liked the demo! There’s not even a need for an additional piece of hardware to switch the HDMI signal. The Pi 4 has two HDMI ports, plus an onboard connector for the official Raspberry Pi 7″ display – and that’s what I’m using. So it is purely a matter of software – tell X11 to activate the HDMI screen and mirror or move the output. That’s the easy-peasy part.
      CEC on the other hand, is trickier than expected. Not only do you need a special cable for it (cheap HDMI cables lack the wires required for CEC), but it also seems that TV manufacturers don’t follow the CEC spec. Or at least have implemented rather strange interpretations of the spec. One of my test TVs completely ignored the CEC signals, the other one could be switched to the HDMI input that the Grannophone was on, but wouldn’t allow switching back to the TV tuner (or any other input) unless the remote was used (or a device on another input actively sent a “Look at me, I’m the captain now!” signal). It seems that with this TV, you cannot pass control back to another input source via CEC, you can only claim control rights from the currently active one. But, there are solutions for receiving and broadcasting infrared signals with a Raspberry Pi, too. So I’m guessing for those particular TVs, I’d need some add-on hardware that acts like a programmable remote control, and more or less line-of-sight between Grannophone and TV.

  5. If you’re worried about dementia, don’t get your grandmother a strange home-made box with a confusing touchscreen and a tangle of wires and dongles hanging out of it… Just buy her land-line service again. That’s going to be what they will feel most familiar with.

    1. Oh, if an audio-only phone will do for them, absolutely, landline it is. Case closed.

      But the question asked here was specifically for a video phone. Obviously, what you see in the pictures is a prototype, so there’s some wild cabling visible.
      However, the final device will only have a power cable, a network cable (unless you go wireless/mobile, which is an option), and the handset cable attached to it. Okay, possibly an HDMI cable, if you want to be able to connect to the TV. So not that much different from a classic landline phone – especially if you use something like heat-shrink tubing or a cable sleeve so it all looks like one cable to the end user.

      But there will be no touchscreen. While the 7″ display is technically touch-capable, that feature will be deliberately turned off.
      Touchscreens are a bad design decision for devices aimed at elderly people, for several reasons (that I won’t go into detail here, just trust me on this, I’ve done some research into it).
      Either go the simple route – exactly one pair of Grannophones that auto-dial each other once the handset is lifted up – or add a hardware user interface with haptic feedback. Hardware buttons that make a nice clicking sound and don’t require much force to push. Or whatever suits your elderly family member best.

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