Chicago Sun Times, Illinois.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006.
David Raistrick, his father, Philip, and uncles loved to play poker and other card games -- until his uncles went blind from a hereditary disease.
David, 40, a self-taught computer programmer, and Philip, 65, an entrepreneur and a former mainframe salesman with Honeywell, came up with a solution to enable their blind family members to play cards. And that idea, a bar code reader linked with a voice synthesizer chip, has turned into a business that makes it possible for the visually impaired to know what food is in the fridge and pantry as well as to identify the prescriptions in their medicine cabinets.
First to the cards.
Ten years ago, the Raistricks, of Downstate Normal, developed cards with bar codes that could be read by a voice synthesizer. When their blind relations played, they tuned in on their hands by listening on a headset.
His uncles enjoyed being back in the poker game.
Then, came the hmm moment. There might be something more there.
The Raistricks started a company and obtained a patent for linking the bar code reader to a voice synthesizer.
Their first product was the i.d. mate, which uses a robotic voice to identify more than 1 million items -- foods from soup to nuts, the newspaper you're reading, Time magazine, cleaning products, over-the-counter medications, CDs and DVDs.
"The device helps people find the can of beans they want to warm up and not get confused with a can of soup." Raistrick said. "Any information sighted people have from products, i.d. mate makes available to the visually impaired."
In addition to identifying these products, i.d. mate also can provide information on instructions, ingredients, nutritional information, package size and warnings from product packaging.
The system sells for $1,300 and can be ordered at www.envisionamerica.com or from dealers listed at the Web site. Raistrick said 10,000 i.d. mates have been sold.
Consumers can record their own IDs for products that are added to the database. En-Vision learned that many people were making labels for their prescription medications.
"It was a great idea. But there were safety issues. The medications needed to be properly labeled by the pharmacy and sent to the patients to be safe," Raistrick said.
He said recognizing medications is a major problem for the visually impaired who want to live independently. He said they have to rely on strict organization to find their meds. Those with limited vision can take a marker and write a big letter, such as "T" for "Tylenol" on a bottle. They also can try to sort out pills based on their shapes, but sometimes the shapes of generics can change month to month.
So in 2000, Raistrick said he made a "fateful call" to Zebra Technology Corp., the Vernon Hills pioneer in printing bar codes.
"Our idea was to extend the pharmacy counter into the home to help visually impaired people take their medications," he said.
En-Vision's concept was a system called ScripTalk that used a voice synthesizer to read off bar codes placed on medication labels by pharmacies.
But rather than bar codes, Zebra recommended using an emerging technology called radio frequency identification (RFID), which involves reader-receivers picking up signals from "smart labels," chips with antennas placed on and in products.
Cindy Lieberman, director of technology marketing at Zebra, said unlike bar codes, RFID systems don't need a direct line of sight to read information because they use radio signals.
"In ScripTalk in particular, we are talking about sight-impaired people, so it is easier for someone to wave a pill bottle over the unit than to figure out where the bar code is on the label," Lieberman said. "(A bar code system would create) more trial and error and more user frustration. Plus, if the label gets wet and tears, or tomato sauce covers up some of the bar code, it may no longer read properly."
She noted that RFID has been used by Wal-Mart and other giants to track their inventory.
RFID also is used with growing frequency in the health-care industry, where RFID chips are attached to hospital patient ID wristbands; to identify and authenticate drugs to prevent counterfeiting; on a surgical chip to spell out the procedure a patient is undergoing to prevent medical errors; and to track blood, urine and other medical samples.
En-Vision built the ScripTalk reader, and Zebra made the printers that pharmacies use to make smart labels to be placed on the drug bottles.
The patient simply pushes a button on the transistor-radio-sized reader to send out a querying signal as he passes the bottle near the device. The robot voice reads the patient's name, the medication, the dose, how often the drug is taken, the date of the prescription, the doctor's name, pharmacy phone number and the number of refills. The device can provide the information in English and Spanish.
The Veterans Administration, which cares for tens of thousands of visually impaired vets, tested the system in 2001 and adopted it in 2002. Raistrick said that more than 6,500 VA patients are using ScripTalk.
The VA has a blanket purchase arrangement that enables any VA hospital to buy printers, labels and readers for visually impaired patients who are able to take medications on their own. The VA supplies the devices for free to vets who qualify.
Over the past year and a half, Kohll's Pharmacy & Homecare, a small chain based in Omaha, Neb., has been selling the system in its local market and via mail-order throughout the country. The reader lists for $325 and often is covered by insurance.
Raistrick said he is in negotiations with major chains and mail-order pharmacies.
A new version of ScripTalk will be available later this year for less than $200. The device has a more streamlined design and "talks" with a normal voice and will be available in American English, British English, French, German and Danish.
"We hear all the time from customers who say they don't know how they ever got along without their ScripTalks," Raistrick said.
End of article.
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