Podcast 23 June 2020

Voice Control: The future of improving mobility

LINcast host Gabe Duverge is joined by Bill Weis, the president of Limited Mobility Solutions. The two discuss the unmet needs of several hundred thousand Americans who rely on others for comfort and how voice control can help meet those needs.

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Full Transcript

Gabe Duverge: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the LINcast, a LINAK podcast featuring conversations, exploring research and innovation behind actuation solutions. We are improving people's quality of life and working environments through smooth and reliable movement. My name is Gabe Duverge, and today we have a special episode. Let me first ask you a question. Have you ever noticed how, when you typically wake up in a different position from what you fell asleep, it's likely that we move throughout the night to remain comfortable, but for those with a disease or injury that prevents those simple movements, gaining comfort easily isn't always possible. That's where an adjustable bed or adjustable recliner comes in very handy.

Today we're shining a spotlight on an unmet need that is impacting a hundred thousand to a quarter million Americans every year. These are people with neuromuscular, neurological, or spinal injuries, who depend on someone else to control their comfort level while they're in an adjustable bed, or in a recliner. These people have lost the ability to control the adjustable bed or recliner position themselves, so they need someone else to be in charge of that comfort level, even if it means waking them up several times at night.

Today, I'm speaking to someone who's working on this unmet need, Bill Weis, the president of Limited Mobility Solutions (LMS). Bill, we're really excited to have you here on the LINcast. How are you doing today?

Bill Weis: I'm doing great, Gabe. Thanks. And I'm excited to be part of this, as well. This has been our passion for the last three years and I'm really happy to share what we've learned over those three years, and hopefully it'll be a benefit to others.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. Absolutely. Before we dive right in, Bill, I'd love to get a bit of background of your work life, especially in technology. From what I understand, you're very well experienced in that realm.

Bill Weis: I spent my whole life in technology. From the time I was 18, until the time I retired, I was doing stuff in the computer industry. When I was 18 years old, I was a technician in a computer lab, at a technical college. I did that for a few years. From there, I went to Digital Equipment Corporation for 23 years, working in some very deep technical scenarios. I worked on mainframes as a repairer and then moved on and supported other people that were trying to fix big computers and ran into some pitfalls where they needed some assistance. And my motivation in helping them over the phone was, if they got it fixed that way, I wouldn't have to fly to that city to help them.
There was a lot of deep technical hardware experience in the first half of my 40 year career in the computer industry. Then I got more into consulting and eventually I moved on to Microsoft, where I spent 15 years. The last nine years of that, I worked in the office of the Chief Technology Officer of Worldwide Services, and had a lot of responsibility in a technical realm at Microsoft. My 40 years was all computer related, very deep technical hardware stuff, as well as software.

Gabe Duverge: Yes. That's an incredibly deep, and long, and experienced career. You have quite the list of credentials. Again, we appreciate having an expert like yourself on the podcast. We've seen and we've read a lot of what you've been doing lately with LMS, what you're doing with voice control to help people with limited mobility. How did you transition from your life in technology and the computer realm to working in this specific field?

Bill Weis: Well, when I retired in 2014, I was pretty fried from technology.

Gabe Duverge: Understandable.

Bill Weis: I was done, and I wanted to just get away and do something nontechnical. We live on a big piece of property in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and I had a lot of work to do on the land, and I really just focused on nontechnical things. Although I did use a computer to research things, but for the most part, I was a consumer of that world, rather than being part of the manufacturing side of it all. But then, during that time, my wife was on an executive team for Muscular Dystrophy Association for a... It's actually the largest fundraising event in the country. It's in Milwaukee each year, and it's sponsored by Harley Davidson. It raises over a million dollars in a day. 12 months of work going into it.

Her five year commitment ended in 2017. Three years into my retirement, her commitment to that event ended. And we always said that together, when her commitment to the Milwaukee event was done... Because that's 300 miles from where we live. She would travel every month to that. I would stay home, load the wood stove, and take care of our Labrador. But when the three years ended, or when her five year commitment ended, we decided we would host an event in the UP of Michigan. In doing so, we put together a planning team for our event for Muscular Dystrophy Association, and in that process we met a family that was local, that has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. That's where things really started for Limited Mobility Solutions.

After meeting the kid's mom, within a few minutes, she hands me the LINAK controller remote for his bed, and said, “You have to find someone that can voice activate Robbie's bed. He can't do it himself, and he wakes me up every hour, all night long. Neither one of us are getting any rest.” And that's where I decided, okay, I had my three year hiatus from technology. I probably should get back into it, and try to help him, actually help them. Because once he has that independence, Mom doesn't have to wake up every night.

Gabe Duverge: Exactly.

Bill Weis: I worked a bit with some of the guys over at LINAK early on, and mind you, this is 2017, and there wasn't really anything going on that I could see, as far as voice activation in the bed industry at all. It was almost like, Will and Hunter, when I talked to them, they were really excited, and it was the same case in other companies, where I would make that initial contact. But then it seemed like there was some apprehension from management. “There's risk here, help as far as you can, but just be cautious.” And I understand that. I mean, back then, these were potential risks for companies to get too involved, but Hunter and Will were great. They gave me the information I needed to be able to design a solution for Robbie, as crude as it was. I look at that controller today, Gabe, and I laugh at it. I mean, it's like a dinosaur. Right?

Gabe Duverge: You've got to start somewhere, Bill.

Bill Weis: Exactly. I mean, it worked. I mean, a year later when I decommissioned it for a much smarter design, the box was working fine. You almost hate to decommission something that's working, but I had to kind of extend my technical prowess and have a wireless solution for something that should have been wireless from the beginning, but I wasn't smart enough way back to really pull that off. What that showed us was, wow, you can really change the life of not only an individual, but his caregiver.

Then, we looked around his room and went, "Well, Robbie spends all his time in his room. He needs Mom to come in and change channels on the TV. He needs Mom to come in and turn his fan on and off. He needs Mom to come in and turn the lights on and off.” His mom, who is his sole caregiver, is just tired at eight o'clock at night and wants to maybe go to bed early. Because Robbie had no control over his environment, she would have to turn his lights off, his TV off, and he would just lay there waiting until he was tired enough to go to sleep.

Gabe Duverge: You've got two people that could use this advancement.

Bill Weis:Yeah, exactly. That really showed us what the power of home automation devices that are commercially available was, and it showed us if you could extend that to the bed that was a huge benefit. From there, I started to realize this, because we were getting a lot of interest from other people just through word of mouth, and it was like, "We have to have a more professional approach to this," because, at the time, my wife was taking on the financial role. Deb, she oversees all the legal part of it, the insurance, the finances. At the time, we self-funded everything, but then it became evident that there's a need for this and we really need to expand this into a more professional-looking solution.

That's when I reached out to an old friend of mine, John Hollcraft, who, by trade, he's a professional developer. He had, I don't know, 47 years in the industry. I mean, makes my 40 look like a new hire, but he had a wealth of software development skills. In fact, at one point, he was my mentor on a Microsoft product while we were both still working at Digital, but at any rate, I got to know him back then, and when John came on board, we started creating skills for Amazon and actions on Google, which would support our devices. He created a portal, and that's when we really started understanding the impact of what we were doing because we could see how often individuals were using voice to control their beds.

Gabe Duverge: Oh, wow.

Bill Weis: When you can see that, Gabe, it changes ... I mean, initially, we were really focused on what we're doing is giving people independence.

Gabe Duverge: Of course, of course. You're giving them peace of mind.

Bill Weis: Yep, but then when you see how often someone is actually using the technology, you're doing more than giving them independence, you're giving them control over their own comfort, and I'll get more into that as we go on, but-

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Bill Weis: ... that's kind of the background of how we got started and the team itself, my wife, Deb, John Hollcraft, and myself.

Gabe Duverge: It's fascinating and incredibly admirable that it comes from such a place of charity and service. It's very interesting that this advancement and this opportunity for further advancement is coming out of that. I'm really happy to hear, coming from LINAK, that our engineers were able to help you with Robbie's bed. Now that he's got some control over the comfort and gained back some of that independence, and it sounds like his mom Carrie has some of that freedom as well now. From that project, you talked a little bit about meeting John and your wife's role in it. From that specific project, how has LMS evolved? How has it become such a big part of this potential advancement in the comfort furniture space?

Bill Weis: It started with Robbie. I was posting some stuff on some forums on YouTube because, at the time, I didn't know anything about these microcontrollers. I mean, I had 40 years in the computer industry, but none of that experience directly translated to these little microcontrollers that we use or microcomputers. People knew I was inquiring about this technology specifically for being able to design a device for voice-activating bed. People would come back to me and go, "Did you ever figure that out?" One guy happened to be a disabled Navy veteran who, at the time, wanted a solution like that because, I mean, he was injured during service, and the way he was able to control his bed at night was by using his teeth to bite on a remote.

Gabe Duverge: That's crazy.

Bill Weis: I mean, I can't explain the feeling I had in my gut when I heard that, thinking, "Here's someone whose life changed dramatically, changed serving our country, and his best option at that time was to bite on his remote." My eyes just started getting wider and wider open as I was hearing more and more scenarios, like Kurt, like Robbie, and more videos would get posted. Then, at one point, Google heard about what we were doing.

Gabe Duverge: Wow.

Bill Weis: They produced a video, a mini documentary, year and a half ago, and there's a million people that have seen that. There's just a lot of different artifacts that have been created along the way.   Another one of our customers, Holly, she has spinal muscle atrophy. Holly's really good at producing little YouTube videos. I would say a third of the people, a third of the people that we've helped, have been because they saw Holly's videos.

Gabe Duverge: That's great.

Bill Weis: Yeah. It's really exploded. You mentioned 100,000 people. The way we came up with that number is we just looked at, what are the groups of people with different medical situations that we've worked with so far? Then, I just did searches to go, how many people have ALS and Duchenne and Becker's and spinal muscle atrophy and limb-girdle. I mean, there's 15 different diagnoses that we've worked with, and I know we haven't hit them all. We're seeing new diagnoses that I've never even heard of those medical conditions before that they all have the same thing in common. They've lost the ability to move their body, and once they lose the ability to manipulate their hands, they're at someone else's mercy to control their comfort for them. Right?

Gabe Duverge: Right.

Bill Weis: It's just the need is far greater than I would have guessed, and it's only because I never realized how many people suffered the same basic outcome from drastically different kinds of diseases and injuries.

Gabe Duverge: Of course. Yeah, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners probably, if they just take a second and think about it, they probably know someone or know someone that knows someone that suffers from one of these either injuries or diseases that could you use this technology. So when you multiply that, it's definitely an unmet need, as we've been talking about.

Bill Weis: Yeah. And just to give a little more insight to the difference between someone having independence, let's say to do something and realizing that well, it's more of an independence, it's giving them control over their own comfort. Lee has ALS. His bed is basically his recliner. That's where he sleeps. That's where he spends most of his day. Lee doesn't even have voice capability himself. He has to rely on a eye gaze machine, you know? So he has a screen on his eye gaze where each icon on there is a voice command that our controller picks up through Amazon or Google. He makes over 100 voice commands per day. You know he would never ask a caregiver 100 times a day to come and-

Gabe Duverge: Yeah. Wow. That's so many, and when you think about, like you said, a caregiver, that frees up someone's time to, and if someone, his caregiver can then focus on food or can focus on the many other needs that he has throughout the day. That's the part that's so interesting to me as well. You're not only helping the person who has his immediate need, but the people around them and it frees up so much and enables so much.

Bill Weis: You're right. That's huge. Caregivers have a really tough job. I've been around a few of them and actually there've been a few times where Carrie wanted to maybe go shopping and I went there and spent a few hours with Robbie and it's like, man, it's a big job just for a couple of hours, much less daily. So anything you can do to help free up the caregiver is a huge thing in itself.

Gabe Duverge: Definitely. Definitely. I wanted to talk a little bit about safety in regards to these products, because coming from the background that we come from at LINAK, safety is absolutely vital when developing products, especially in the comfort furniture space and when you're meeting a need for people who have some kind of medical issue. Could you give us some insight into what you've learned in regards to these products to ensure that they're safe for all users and the people who operate them?

Bill Weis: Yeah, certainly. That was probably the biggest concern we had going into this was: how risky is this for us to do? At one level we absolutely felt called to do this. We looked at our backgrounds and looked at what we had ahead of us and we went, "We need to do this, but we need to do this smartly." Just because you can voice activate something doesn't mean you should do it. One example would be hospital beds typically have a feature where you can raise the bed up ...

Gabe Duverge: Right, right.

Bill Weis: ... for the caregiver's benefit, right? And then you can also lower that bed. On an Invacare bed, that takes 17 seconds at which, once you give that command, there's no way to stop it.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Bill Weis: Well, short of having maybe a smart switch in a wall that you have to get a separate command to take power away from it. There's some things you could do, and then you stand back and you go, "The caregiver is really the one that needs lift and lower or raise and lower. We don't need to voice activate something like that."

Gabe Duverge: That makes sense. Yeah.

Bill Weis: Right? And then there's commands that are maybe longer moving commands, like to go from a sitting up position to a laying down position that might take 15 seconds or depending on the bed, they all have different rates and stuff like that of motion, but you don't need to have one command and do large movements of the bed. What our sweet spot has been is the people for comfort levels or for comfort reasons, they need small incremental changes. Maybe the legs come up a few seconds or down a few seconds or the head of the bed comes up and down a few seconds. If they go from a flat position to a sitting up position, okay, so if they have to give that command three or four times to do that, well, that's okay. They're all okay with that. They don't have to depend on anybody else to come do it for them. For them, if they can control the bed to all those different levels but it takes them some repetition, that is a small price for them.

Gabe Duverge: That makes sense. Yeah.

Bill Weis: Yeah. As a manufacturer, what I would say is only do the larger movement commands if you have that technology built into your controls or Linear Actuators where they can sense an obstruction of any kind and stop.

Gabe Duverge: Okay. Right.

Bill Weis: But really to address the needs of the people that we've been serving for the last three years, if all you do is provide voice commands for small incremental changes of the head and foot end of the bed but everything else is manual, meaning a caregiver is in control of that, then you will have met a huge part of what the need is. And I think that approach mitigates the risk for everybody and maybe manufacturers would maybe be more inclined to want to at least start down that path and have some minimal feature by voice and then maybe expand on that as technology allows them to do things that are maybe riskier today, but maybe less risky with advancements in technology.

Gabe Duverge: Of course, that makes a lot of sense. Small incremental change, but if it goes a long way. As you mentioned, just that repetition has compared to the previous reality of having to rely on someone, it makes all the difference. Bill, this has been a really fantastic look at your work and LMS's work and how these small improvements make a big impact on lives. As we wrap things up, what are some of the key points, the important things that you think that our listeners can take away from this and potentially take into their everyday work and improvements?

Bill Weis: Yeah. I think there's two. For me, there's two key messages. One applies to basically everybody and the other applies to the manufacturers of beds and recliners. So let me start with the example of the one that applies to everybody. There's home automation devices that are fairly cheap, easy to install that could be used to change the life of at least one person probably everybody listening to this would know. I'll give you one example. We've got a neighbor that lived at the other end of the lake and during the night, he was an older gentleman, he lived alone, had a couple small dogs. During the night he would wake up and like guys do, he'd have to maybe use the bathroom once or twice during the night. It was not uncommon for him to have a bloody forehead from tripping over one of the dogs. If, and he's no longer with us, so I can't really address this, but the point is, if he were able to wake up and just give a command like, "Hey, Google, let there be light," and lights came on, well, he would find his way to the bathroom. Hang on a second, my Google device just started talking.

Gabe Duverge: No, no, that's great.

Bill Weis: I thought I had it muted. I'll have to use a different example next time.

Gabe Duverge: No, that's great, honestly.

Bill Weis: But that's an example of just using a readily available home automation product to perhaps make an elderly person's life safer. A lot of people that are older that fall down, that's oftentimes the beginning of a decline for them.

Gabe Duverge: Right, of course.

Bill Weis: I they break their hip, whatever. It sounds really simple, but it's an example of something that could be done fairly cheaply and could have a pretty big impact, I think, and there's other commercially available products, maybe controlling their TV or a fan or things like that. So again, one key takeaway is really anybody could look to someone they know or someone through friends or whatever, that could benefit from a standard home automation device.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Bill Weis: The second key takeaway, I'm hoping companies like Basic American or Drive or Hill-Rom or Invacare, I'm hoping what they hear, and there's others that make hospital beds, but what I'm hoping they hear is there is a huge need for this right now, and the impact you can make on an individual and their caregiver is beyond what I would have guessed, and it doesn't take a lot. It just takes some simple commands that are capable of being delivered by voice, that make small incremental changes in the bed, in a safe manner.

These changes are... I'm almost lost for words at what I've seen. It's just how it changes lives, Howard Eitzen, the very last project that I worked on just a week ago, he has a Basic American bed with a LINAK control, and this was my second time working with Hunter, and the second time around LINAK was really involved in this one and provided some part of the solution, which was amazing because, this is a thousand or 1500 mile distance between this guy and myself, the customer. He lives in a nursing home. Howard said that for the first time in eight years, he can sleep at night.

Gabe Duverge: Wow.

Bill Weis: And I was so, so glad that LINAK was part of that solution that made his life so much better.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah, glad we could be a small part of it, for sure.

Bill Weis: I just feel what we've discussed here is probably far greater in importance that I could've probably done justice to.

Gabe Duverge: No, I think you've done a great job.

Bill Weis: Yeah. I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to share this and to work with you guys, and I hope there's an outcome that will be worthy of the people that need it.

Gabe Duverge: No, absolutely. I think this has been an incredible conversation and being able to speak with you about these small changes that have huge impacts has been greatly appreciated by myself and I'm sure the audience has enjoyed it and has taken something of value from it, and I'm looking forward to what the next, you said you've been doing this for just a couple of years, but what are the next five to 10 years look like in these kinds of projects, and hopefully we'll see more and more, a larger sliver, a larger trunk, and a larger percentage of that hundred thousand to quarter million people who could use a solution today, get the help they need and be able to sleep easy at night or be a little more comfortable, or offer a little more comfort to their loved ones and caretakers.
Thanks so much for joining me, Bill. It's really been great.

Bill Weis: Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. Thanks everyone for listening. I hope you enjoyed this special conversation.

You can explore more topics on comfort furniture and voice control as well as all the other applications that LINAK is part of at linakus.com. Thank you.

 

Bill Weis Bio
Bill Weis

Bill Weis spent 40 years in the computer industry with 38 of those years working for Digital and Microsoft. He retired in 2014 and is passionate about using technology to help those with limited mobility regain some independence.

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