A feature story for the Weekend Australian Magazine, March 2017

The pinball wizard saving elderly people’s lives

Photo credit: Julian Kingma

The old clunkers still work fine. They click and they clack and they bang and they clunk. That’s their beauty. You just have to care enough to keep them going. Thwack!The ­pinball wizard releases the plunger and sends the ball on its journey. Ding! Clang! Bip! Clunk! Three bonus balls roll down but he doesn’t swat them. “Let them go, let them go.” His hips twist as he punches a flipper into the oncoming ball like hitting a finely timed cover drive to the boundary. The ball crashes into a drop target marked with the letter “W”. Good start. The ball rolls back down and the flipper sends it back up the playfield, this time knocking down “H”. It rolls back and is once again smacked into oblivion. “O” goes down. The points rack up. That’s how you do it. You don’t thrash away aimlessly. You build your score methodically. Two bonus balls enter the fray and this time he keeps them alive, juggling them like a pro while casually knocking down three ­daleks in the Doctor Who-themed game with the third. “There’s one! There’s two… Three! Got it!” The prize he chases is his: an extra life.

The wizard is otherwise known as John Mason. He’s a 48-year-old father of two polite teenagers who lives in a modest suburban home in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill. Eight years ago he was a maintenance man, wearing rubber gloves, staring into a toilet and thinking: I’m 40-something years old. How have I come to this moment in my life?

From no angle does Mason today give the impression of being a wily, skateboarding, pinball-obsessed electronics wiz who’s invented a remarkable, life-saving medical device. It’s called Bed Assist. It looks like a whiteboard but it’s ­actually a bed monitor to prevent elderly ­people falling in nursing homes. He admits it’s not a sexy topic; nor is it a new idea. But everyone I speak to says this one actually works. He sold his first five years ago. Now 2200 are in nursing homes around Australia; more than a third of ­Victorian nursing homes use them. At $595 each, the orders keep coming in.

While the maintenance man with his hand down a toilet who came to invent his way out of a hole might now be considered a pinup boy for Malcolm Turnbull’s “innovation agenda”, Mason has spent most of his time innovating ways to stop his invention from being stolen. And the fight’s not over yet…

Read the full story here