The author enjoys independently eating a meal.

The author enjoys independently eating a meal.

It will be my wife’s birthday soon. We’ll probably make her favorite dinner, light some candles and set the music right. Then she’s going to set me up with Obi and leave us alone together. It’s this arrangement we’ve got. Obi is a cutie. She treats me like I’m the only man in the world. She even feeds me.

Before your sick mind gets going, know that Obi is a robotic eating aid, and besides my wheelchair and van, she’s the best thing I own. It’s true that robots will one day be our overlords, but they have to take baby steps first, like spooning me food. It’s a long game they’re playing, but I go along, because if you put good enough food in my mouth, I’m down with just about anything. With my Obi’s third birthday looming, I thought I’d reflect on how she has changed my life.

The Obi is a simple yet savvy way to help people with disabilities be themselves. That sounds cheesy, but eating is important and it’s nice to be able to choose what and when you eat, or if you want to cut yourself and your caregiver a break by eating all on your lonesome — suddenly these choices are yours again.

I first saw the Obi at the 2016 Chicago Abilities Expo. A more-established mechanical eating aid was on display next door to it. The booth for the competition, on the other hand, was pretty quiet, with no people around. The Obi exhibit was full of patrons eager to see the new device. That other eating aid was several times more expensive than the Obi, and at the time, neither was covered by insurance.

Obi’s design is beautiful, not only non-institutional and pleasing to the eye — a young friend noticed Obi looks like Luxo Jr., the hopping lamp mascot at the beginnings of Pixar movies — but so easy to use. Here is a sophisticated machine that requires no time at all to learn and operate. It is a robotic arm with a spoon attached, mounted on a small platform (17-by-12-by-3 inches, and only 7.5 pounds) with a plastic tray overlay molded with four bowls, and a pair of touch sensors for you. That’s it.

The sensors can be buttons, touchpads or any other switch needed. These can be placed on the table, in your lap, under your feet, wherever. One button moves the spoon from bowl to bowl, and the other tells it to scoop and feed. The robot even pushes food down to the middle of the bowl and scrapes the spoon along the edge of the bowl to minimize dripping.

I’ve had MS so long I’ve got barnacles and am pretty much down to one arm with no finger movement. I interface with Obi through a pair of touchpads. We set them on my lap and bobby-pin them to a square of eggcrate foam that won’t skate away from me. My wife fills the bowls, presses the Set button and then holds down a Memory button while she positions the spoon at its target, i.e., my big mouth. All done, and she’s off for some sweet solitude. That utter simplicity is still a wonder to us. No phonebook-sized manuals, only charge it and go.

The Obi handles most foods, although you have to experiment because some dishes work better in the spoon than others. (I’ve posted on thewheeledwonder.wordpress.com a nitty-gritty of foods and workarounds for Obi.) Some meals go perfectly, while you end up wearing others on your sleeve. A couple of dropped bits on your lap napkin is nothing for what you get here.

Beer controls the Obi with the big blue and green push buttons.

Beer controls the Obi with the big blue and green push buttons.

After three years, the thing still works like it came out of the box. Only once, three months in, the spoon somehow got hung up while digging in bowl number two, snapping off a plastic piece where the spoon mounted to the arm. I remember being slightly chuffed about the bare-bones website and wrote the email address provided.

The director of customer service was traveling but responded in no-time-flat. A couple of days later, I received not one replacement spoon but several, with simple printed instructions for making an easy but necessary adjustment. To be sure all went well, customer service set up a phone call with the tech vice president who helped develop the device. The design flaw never reappeared, and it has been smooth eating ever since.

The Obi costs real money, $5,950. I’ve not yet found the case where Medicare covers it, but Medicaid has covered at least one unit, in Missoula, Montana. Obi has just been listed with a federal GSA contract, to help get it to veterans. The manufacturer offers rental and lease-to-buy options, as well as other funding alternatives. My hope is that the more popular Obi becomes, the more likely it gets picked up by Medicare, and once Medicare covers it, everyone will.

In the meantime, putting out that kind of money for a relatively recent device is scary; it was for me. That’s why I wrote this review, to say that I took the step and found it worthwhile. I have no connection to the company, other than as happy customer.

With/Without Obi

Without the Obi: Diner and caregiver in each other’s faces, bringing any moods from the day along with them. There are all kinds of opportunities for miscommunication in this simple transaction.

With the Obi: Blessed time apart, breathing space.

Without the Obi: Eating is a dependency relationship, even if a well-meaning one.

With the Obi: You feed yourself.

Without the Obi: Eating is sometimes rushed, with two separate minds at work, bringing the risk of choking or aspirating food.

With the Obi: Eating at one’s leisure, daydreaming or watching TV, or hey, burping without having to excuse yourself.

Find Obi on Facebook or at meetObi.com. John Beer blogs at thewheeledwonder.wordpress.com.