Blind World Magazine

United Kingdom.
Innovation: A companion to help the aged.




The Times Online (UK).
Tuesday, June 06, 2006.




HEINZ WOLFF is the archetypal nutty professor; his office is in disarray - littered with pieces of computer, children's toys and biscuit tins - his hair and bow-tie are askew and he looks mischievous.


Although best known for his television and radio work, in particular The Great Egg Race, Professor Wolff is now passionately promoting his Companion, a barcode-led computer system for the elderly.


Like all good inventions, the Companion is stunningly simple: a computer screen attached to a barcode reader. The user swipes the scanner over barcodes to perform a range of tasks.


The Companion was conceived after the Dolphin Society, a charity based in Bristol, approached Professor Wolff to design something to help elderly housebound people with their shopping. He was an obvious choice after coining the phrase "tools for living" in the Seventies when he was asked to design some technical aids for the disabled, a term he describes as "a bit grim".


"We have carried out trials in day centres, and arthritic people and very frail people can do it and enjoy it. We even made one to look like a black furry cat," he says, pointing to a computer wrapped in fake fur and waving the barcode reader in the air like a wand.


As well as not having to get their fingers around the keyboard, visually impaired users don't need to worry about the screen because the system talks. Users can choose from a male voice (Charles) or female voice (Audrey). "The system converts text to speech, they are not recorded voices," the 87-year-old emeritus professor says with boyish enthusiasm.


He then excitedly demonstrates the multiple functions of the Companion: using either a brochure of barcodes, an on-screen catalogue or by scanning barcodes on packets and tins, a shopping list can be created and then sent to the supermarket.


The system also has a range of potential healthcare applications. ID cards can be scanned into the system and activities recorded; for example, when a health visitor has dressed an ulcer or taken a blood pressure reading. A pharmacist could e-mail prescription details to the Companion, which could then remind the patient to take the drugs. Medicine packets can also be scanned so the patient can check the identity of drugs and the regimen. "If you can't get people to take their pills you can't really care for them in their own homes. Many of these people end up being admitted to A&E as a consequence. (Preventing) this could be an important function of the Companion," Professor Wolff says. "And if we have barcodes for common drug side-effects, they could scan those and e-mail the pharmacist," he adds. The pharmacist could look for drug interactions and review the prescription.


"And if a camera is attached to the scanner, pictures of ailments could also be sent to pharmacists and doctors," he says, photographing his hand.


The system could also be attached to entryphones to show who is at the door and be used to e-mail Meals-on-Wheels services.


"Anything you can do on a PC you can do with this. This is not just a very sophisticated telephone."


The Companion is used by 47 elderly people in Bristol to do their shopping. "I gave them the machines. I'm giving quite a lot away," says Professor Wolff, who hopes that the health and social care uses of his invention will persuade NHS trusts to adopt it. But he admits that he is stuck between a rock and a hard place; local authorities and NHS trusts want hard data before they invest. They want to know, for instance, how many days' hospital admission can be saved.


"I haven't got enough (systems) out there to get the data," he says. So he gives systems away and "plods around demonstrating it".


"I finance this entirely myself. I have a deal with my children that they will inherit less," he says. He also finances the project with after-dinner speaking engagements, TV appearances and by evaluating the educational value of children's toys, which at least explains the giant Mr Potato Head sitting on his desk.


http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,8164-2210765,00.html




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