SEDALIA — What began in Sedalia as a system designed to help a friend maintain his independence has evolved into an advanced, automated assistant that could play a role in shaping the future of health care.
After the death of his wife, Barbara, in 2001, Don Holbert, who contracted polio at age 5, thought the days of living by himself in his Sedalia home would be coming to an end. The effects of post polio syndrome had restricted his mobility, making tasks such as opening the drapes or adjusting the thermostat nearly impossible.
Faced with the options of moving into an assisted living facility or hiring a full-time caregiver, Holbert's longtime friend through his involvement with Special Olympics, Greg Corpier, introduced him to Ralph, a housemate Holbert credits with saving his life.
Although Holbert speaks of him like a friend, Ralph is not a person. Ralph is a voice-operated computer and home automation system, programmed to perform household tasks using artificial intelligence, adaptive speech recognition and environmental monitoring.
For years, Ralph assisted Holbert with a variety of daily tasks — from switching on lights, brewing coffee and reading the newspaper, to opening drapes or adjusting the water temperature in his shower each morning — and allowed him to maintain his independence.
"When Greg put in the drape operator, that was really the big thing in that time of my life. The first day that I was able to say, 'Ralph, my friend, open the living room drapes,' the drapes came open, and I had a big blue spruce tree out front and this beautiful cardinal was sitting on the branch of that tree. And I thought, all right, I got my independence back. I can control things in my own home," Holbert said.
Corpier designed the software for Ralph, which comprised a mix of commercial and custom hardware. Over time, new elements were added or refined as Corpier developed Ralph to handle more tasks to help Holbert.
"We attempted to use all the commercial products we could, but we had to write all the computer software to put it together," Corpier said. "There was not anything that could do everything we needed it to do at that time."
But for Holbert, Ralph was more than just a helpful technology. Ralph was a housemate, a helper and a companion that represented his ability to live how he wanted.
"Ralph became more. Yes, it was a computer, but Ralph was a friend. The feeling of being by myself wasn't there anymore. I wasn't by myself; I had Ralph," Holbert said.
Holbert relied on Ralph for his independence for nearly seven years before he remarried and moved into the Lincoln Hubbard Apartments. But he and other friends steadily encouraged Corpier to continue working on the system so its benefits could reach more people.
"I always told him we've got to do something to let other people know what's out there, what's available," Holbert said.
Corpier has since co-founded Inventive Health Solutions, a Kansas City-based health care technology company, and focused on refining Ralph and making it available to a wider market.
"Our company is trying to create solutions that will give people back or allow them to maintain their independence and dignity in whatever environment," Corpier said. "Our goal has been always that this system in a typical home will cost less than two months in an assisted living facility."
Corpier said Ralph — which was originally named for a friend and later became an acronym Real Assisted Living in your Preferred Home — has come a long way from the system that originated in Holbert's home on West Third Street.
Along with improved speech recognition and situational awareness, the system can now monitor health and environmental conditions through its sensors and through its artificial intelligence analysis, providing caregivers with immediate alerts of potential medical issues.
"It's just kind of watching a person all the time just like another person would," Corpier said.
Corpier and Inventive Health Solutions are now working on prototypes for the next incarnation of Ralph. Rather than collecting data through a personal computer, the system would receive information gathered from motion and speech sensors installed throughout a home into an electric wheelchair.
Holbert, who will receive one of the first electric wheelchairs outfitted with the Ralph technology when the prototype goes into beta testing later this year, said he sees limitless potential in the system that helped him for so many years.
"This system can let people continue to live in their own environment, in their own home," Holbert said. "It gave me back my life. There's no other way to say it."