01 – Founding The Assistive Technology Industry

Founding The $15.3 Billion Assistive Technology Industry

In The Beginning…

I’m going to step away from the technical aspects of Innovative Thinking for this entry and interweave actual practical examples. Below is the story of how I co-founded the $5.3 billion Assistive Technology industry and how Innovation helped me to develop the first commercially available voice recognition, voice synthesizing, environmental control, the HeadMouse, and the first fully graphic operating system, computer system for the physically disabled.

One morning at 10:30 AM PST, on Saturday January 5, 1985, the rollercoaster started to “click, click, click”.  This very moment was the beginning of successes and failures that took me on an Innovated journey that allowed me to work with Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, spend a day with Bill Gates’ dad, meet and brainstorm with the Father of Virtual Reality, become friends with the inventor of the Data Glove and the author of the American with Disabilities Act, sue Microsoft and win, sue Apple and lose, go through Wall Street Road Shows for my I.P.O., initiate and survive two R.I.C.O. filings, a near S.E.C. scandal, develop more than 125 copyrights, have 18 inventions and 30,000 corporate records in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution, 14 more inventions placed in the Computer History Museum, write nearly a million lines of code, bring to market 30 hardware peripherals, open up 25 national and 3 international sales offices, designed the “first computer to save a human life”, hostile shareholder takeovers, V.C. attacks and come out the other end safe and sound with the ability to Innovate on a dime.

The most often asked question I hear when I speak professionally on Innovation and technology, is how did all this start?  What inspired you to dedicate such a large part of your career to technology for the disabled?  Who were the players?  What single moment and which decisions made the biggest difference?  What was that instant of Innovative spark that ignited it all?

It began in the fall of 1985.  To understand how extraordinary and unusual some of these ideas and concepts were you must first understand how primitive the computer industry was in 1985.  The “home computer” or “Personal Computer (P.C.)” as first coined by Steve Jobs at Apple Computer was only 9 years old.  It was their ninth anniversary of their invention.  The home computer had only really been widely used for seven or so years.  The Macintosh was only one year old and had a whopping 512k of RAM memory and a 9” B&W screen.  The Apple IIe was the most popular computer in homes and schools; the IBM had only recently graduated from the IBM Peanut to the P.C. Junior.  And, the other market competitors were the Amiga, Commodore 64, Tandy (Radio Shack), and the Franklin (an Apple IIe knockoff).  The industry wasn’t yet very sophisticated.  There was no laser or color printers, no internet, no email, no networks, no internal hard drives, and no one had ever heard of the gigabyte.

SoftVoice, The World’s First Voice Activated

I had owned a Franklin (sorry), since they first were release and had just moved over to the Apple IIe.  I had been designing A.I. (artificial intelligence) applications since the first Apple came out in 1976, then the Timex Sinclair computer came out in 1981, and the Franklin in 1982.  I was able to teach these early computers to learn from trial and error, learn by asking questions, navigate through three-dimensional cyberspace (not yet coined), and actually hold a conversation.  This conversational application was based on the work that Marvin Minsky had done at MIT, which lead to the Eliza experiment.

I had developed an application in that primitive hardware (16k to 64k of RAM!) that would converse and learn from the conversation.  The program would start off by typing in first 40 column white on black ASCII text (then 80 columns!), “Hello, whom am I speaking with?”  You would then type in your name, hit enter, and the computer would reply, “Good morning, Lon.  It’s nice to be speaking with you.”  It knew the time of day as I had programmed it to check a clock daughter board (remember them).  It would then ask me what I would like to talk about.  I would type it in and it would try to hold a two-way conversation and did a pretty good job.

In the summer of 1985, I read about a guy who, while working on voice synthesizing at Texas Instruments on Long Island, New York, figured out that if he took the circuit he was working on for voice synthesizing and ran the current backwards through it, it could actually recognize audio patterns, hence speech recognition.  He called it the Listn’er 1000.  Like so many of us “inventors” of the day, we were all coming up with really great ideas, but didn’t know what to do with them.

I contacted him at his home one evening and asked to buy this circuit to put into my Apple IIe.  It cost around $75 and plugged right in.  Unfortunately, it didn’t have a lot of usable software.  I knew what I’d being doing the next couple of weekends.

I got the hardware to interface with the Apple IIe and got it to understand commands like “run”, load”, “print”, and “next”.  Of course, the next step was to write the software (some binary ‘yuck”, some Hexadecimal ‘also yuck’, and some in BASIC programming languages, to work with my conversation software.  Within a month or so, it actually worked.

You could say “Hello”, and it would respond with a warm “Hello” back!  I would say-spell my name, and it would learn it!  Wow!  This was starting to get Star Trek / 2001 on me.  I got to the point with my programming that I could essentially run all of my applications on my Apple IIe just by talking to it.  Now days, this statement has lost some of its shock value because the technology has become commonplace, but in 1985, this was pretty cool stuff.

I continued to push the limits of the voice recognition and the Apple IIe and had developed, from scratch, a drawing program.  In 1985 there was two types of drawing LowRes and High Res.  LowRes was a 40 column size squares that you could color any of 256 colors, while HiRes allowed you to draw fine, pixel thick lines, but fill was a very difficult mathematical task.  So, your choices were either colored blocks or line art.

Here’s how and when it started, that one spark that ignited everything…

Again, it was Saturday morning January 5, 1985 about 10:30 AM,  It was the Saturday after News Years.  I was the general sales manager of an Apple retail store in Kennewick, Washington after recently relocating from upstate New York.  I had decided that after 10 years of being a civil engineer and owning my own CAD engineering company, I wanted to work in the computer field instead.

Any reader has ever worked retail, knows how sales are during that week after New Years.  Everyone had bought the computers and was at home trying to figure out how to get them to do anything.  The showroom was dead.

I was sitting at an Apple IIe that I had booted up with my software and the voice board installed and was peacefully sipping my coffee, when a man came into the showroom walked up behind me and scared the… out of me.  I was in my own world, just sitting there talking to my computer and my computer was listening.

He had been watching me for a few minutes from the other side of the room and asked what I was doing.  I told him I was drawing a Christmas wreath just by talking to the computer.  I told him, “watch…”

“Right”, the cursor moved to the right, “Green”, and a little green square would appear in the wreath, “Up-Right” and the cursor would move up one and to the right one.  “Red” and the red element in the bow would appear.  “Wow!” he shouted and asked that I show him more.

After a while, he introduced himself as Jim Hilschiemer, a representative for InvaCare Medical Supply Company, out of Coeur ‘de Lane, Idaho.  He asked what I was doing with an exceptional interest.  When I had fully explained the technology and what my application was, he then exchanged with me, what his mission was.

He had been searching the tri-state area (Washington, Oregon & Idaho) for some time now, searching in every computer store he came across, for any technology available that could help the disabled, in particular, a quadriplegic.

He was commissioned through InvaCare, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, in Yakima, Washington, and Keeler’s Medical Supply, to locate anything that would assist a quadriplegic in regaining a little of his independence and to give him control of anything to do with his life, and unknown to me, a reason to live.

I quickly re-assured him that there must be an endless array of adaptive devices, and equipment for the disabled, as the technology has been on the shelves for nearly a decade and it was a perfect match; computer’s abilities… human disabilities.  Not to worry, I would simply draw up a list of just some of the many highlights of equipment available, and talk to him the following Saturday, when he would once again stop by on his way through town.

Well, that following Saturday I not only wasn’t able to present an extensive list, but any list or item all!  To my amazement, there were no equipment, or software at all for the disabled.  I explained, I contacted Apple’s Computer data bank, I spoke with IBM, Amiga, Tandy, Commodore, all of my distributors and even a few disabled organizations, and found absolutely nothing.

After a very disheartening conversation, he asked if I could please design something to help an individual in St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Yakima, Washington.  He explained that a man was in his early forties, an engineer who’s name was Herb Smith.

Herb had a close personal friend who was a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed form the neck down (C3, similar to Christopher Reeve, who by the way was my very last disable I worked with).  It was Thanksgiving, and Herb felt that his friend should not spend his Thanksgiving holiday home alone, so Herb invited him to spend thanksgiving with him and his family.

After the Thanksgiving meal was through, Herb was returning his friend to his van to return him to his home, when the wheel chair Herb was lowering down his front steps became unbalanced.  Herb held firmly to the wheel chair to prevent his friend from falling face first down the concrete steps.  In doing so, Herb lost his balance and fell over the top wheel chair, hitting the back of his neck on the edge of a step.  Herb instantly broke his own neck and became a quadriplegic himself.

When Herb woke up, he found himself in a hospital bed unable to move any part of his body below his neck.  He was completely paralyzed.  Herb’s insurance capped out at $1m (it costs on average $3.2m to save, rehabilitate, and keep alive a quadriplegic for the first three years).  Herb was moved to the charitable, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.  Herb has lost his job as an engineer because he was paralyzed, he had spend all of his life’s savings, lost his home, and his wife left him because she couldn’t handle the stress.  Herb, once knowing he would remain like this for the rest of life stopped eating refused therapy or any medical attention at all, and was about four weeks from death.  What would you do if you were in this circumstance?

Well, once I heard of this injustice, tragedy, and irony, and with all of the emotion and confidence of a New Yorker, I quickly exclaimed “That if I create a computer who could hold a conversation, I could certainly create a computer for Herb.  And, if I couldn’t create a disabled computer system for Herb, no one could!”  Oh, boy!  I did it this time.  We talked for some time about the difficulties of quadriplegia, and especially of this type of accident, and of the psychological trauma related to this injury.

He described the rehabilitation process, and the exceptionally high fatality rate due to the lack of will to live.  He explained that having to call for help to simply turn on a light, or turn off the television, was the first and most difficult freedom take away from them.

Think about it.  Remember the last time you were bed ridden with a flu, or other ailment? Remember the frustration?  It instantly reminded me of the time I broke my ankle on an engineering job site and had to remain on the couch for five weeks.  This was the most frustration time of my life.  Trying to adjust the television, answer the phone, or even turning on the lights when it got dark was a terrible experience.  I remember even throwing my crutches at the television out of shear frustration when I wanted it off.

There was always one thought that would help calm me down; I would not be like this forever.  I had only four more weeks, or two more weeks or 11 more days.  Not so for a quadriplegic.

Lon Safko At The SoftVoice Computer

Jim left the store that morning, and said he would set up things with the powers that be at St. Elizabeth’s for me to make a presentation / demonstration, and he would call me on Monday.  This was one of those times when you hoped like heck, he would forget to call, and maybe never hear form him again, but I knew there was no such luck.

Early Monday morning, the call came.  Jim had set up a demonstration for the end of February, with the doctors, the staff, the insurance company, InvaCare, Keeler’s Medical Supply, the family of the patient, and even the patient himself.  I said I’d be ready.  But, I didn’t know how I would be?  This was only six weeks away and it has never been done before.

I scoured the computer magazines and catalogues for anything that would help.  I started with the Apple IIe, my voice recognition board, and some hardware modules by X-10*.  I immediately began working on the software to tie all of the mismatched hardware pieces together.

Environmental Control For The Disabled

*X-10 powerhouse had just come out.  X-10 was the first computer controlled home automation.  The employees just bought the I.P from B.A.S.F.  You know the “we don’t make stuff, we make it better” people?  B.A.S.F. invented the technology, but didn’t know what to do with it.  It was called “closed circuit radio signal overlay” for the techies reading this.

Time was running out.  One week to go and I could not get the hardware to communicate for technical reasons I won’t get into here.  I talked to the Apple engineers; I talked to the actual developer of the voice board himself, in his home in Long Island one night.  It was unanimous; all of the developers themselves assured me that the hardware and existing software would never communicate.  There were too many differences in programming languages and hardware protocols.

Now, with only five days to the demonstration day, I was sick.  I had nothing.  What would I do?  What would happen to Herb? He is going to die and it’s my fault…

The SoftVoice Software 5 1/4″ Floppy Disks

I left the store and walked over to McDonald’s for a cup of coffee, and a good cry, literally.  While teary eyed, and completely discouraged, it happened.  It was the movement of inspiration, that little feeling inside your head, that proverbial light bulb lighting over my head.

One of my favorite speakers and authors, Wayne Dwyer said in his March 8, 2004, PBS presentation of his “Power of Intention” that the word “inspire”, originally came from the words “In-Spirited” or the Greek root of “inspiritu”.  He further explained that the Greeks believed that when someone is truly “inspired” or “In-Spirited” that they are touched and gifted by the Gods with that idea, that moment of “Eureka”.

All of the engineers were right.  It could never work, not that way.  I ran back to the store where I had been working in a small corner of the basement, and completely destroyed all of the software I had been working so hard on.  I started again from scratch, and fourteen hours later, I emerged from that basement with a computer that would listen to you voice and control your environment, your lights, your heat, telephone call a friend, turn on a TV, turn off a stereo, allow you to word process, run a spreadsheet, lock your door, turn up your heat, play a game, run engineering software, dim a lamp, print a letter.

It really was working!

I called this new creation “SoftVoice”, for Voice Activated Software.

This was only the beginning of a decade long journey, not the end of the story.

There is so much more to follow…

Lon Safko
Bestselling Author & International Keynote Speaker

Tags: Lon Safko, Bestselling Author, International Keynote Speaker, Innovative thinking, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Apple Computer, creative, innovation, creative thinking, SoftVoice, SenSei, First Voice Recognition, First Environmental Control, physically disabled, The Social Media Bible, The Fusion Marketing Bible

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