From the EyeWriter and Project Daniel to the Alex Mouse and the DIY power chair, California-based Not Impossible Lab is rolling out technology that’s enabling people with disability to live life anew. Geeta Padmanabhan tells us how
Want a cool DIY project for the week-end? Collect a pair of cheap shades, webcam, floppy disc, wire-hanger, wire cutters, electrical tape, super glue, small/large screwdrivers and a measuring tape/ruler. Got them all? Here's the step-by-step for EyeCan — eye-glasses with a camera. Hack the camera, pinch a piece of the infra-red filter, attach it to the camera, attach the camera to glasses, download the eye-can codes and manual and you have your own version of EyeWriter, the flagship product of Not Impossible Labs, LLC. (video at Not Impossible Labs, www.eyewriter.org)
You'll want to know the EyeWriter story: “It began on a date-night with wife,” said Ni [Labs] co-founder Mick Ebeling, at TED Talks. The plans changed, he found himself at an art show where he noticed posters saying “TemptOne Benefit”. Impressed by the graffiti art and intrigued by the charity angle, he asked to see the artist. He was told: “He lives in a hospital. On life support. He's completely paralysed. He has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).” That night in 2008, says Ebeling, his journey to EyeWriter began, one that continues today. Tempt had been a major player in the Los Angeles urban art scene before the disease left him physically paralysed, except for his eyes. He couldn’t move, talk or breathe unassisted-— much less create art. “After lots of coffee-fuelled nights, copious amounts of spaghetti and pancakes, the hack team made the impossible possible: they created the EyeWriter.”
The team comprised members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, the Graffiti Research Lab, and The Ebeling Group. Their product is a low-cost, eye-tracking system to allow ALS patients to draw using their eyes. The team would expand to a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients across the world — who use local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art.
They weren't out to revolutionise the medical-device industry, said Ebeling. The need to help TemptOne — that singularity of focus — kept them on track. The EyeWriter, made in Ebeling's living room would be open source. “The act of giving the EyeWriter away was one of the most important and powerful components of the project,” said Mick. “We made a documentary about the EyeWriter journey called Getting Up: The Tempt One Story (gettingup-thedoc.com.). Basic communication was nearly impossible for Tempt. That was wrong. I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. But I knew I could not, in good conscience, just walk away.”
I called Elliot Kotek, Co-founder, Ni [Labs]. First came the Not Impossible Foundation, born from Mick's experience with the EyeWriter, he said. Elliot met Mick through a mutual friend; they later spent time together at C2 MTL conference in Montreal. “We are both local to Venice Beach, California. We talked about documentary-influenced projects. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse, asking me to join him on this journey of making Not Impossible an undeniable proposition in exchange for chocolate-covered almonds?”
Other projects came to Ni via a variety of paths, he said. Project Daniel was a result of inspiration initiated by an article in TIME magazine. Ebeling flew to Sudan to fit Daniel — a boy who had lost both arms in the conflict — with a 3-D printed arm, and since then one arm is being printed and fitted every week. The Alex Mouse (mouth-controlled joystick that interfaces with a computer mouse), came to the company because a dad wrote in about his son. The website features videos of solutions you could never have imagined, like the tongue ornament to move things, a DIY power-chair, solution for brain-trauma.
I ask him about the team, whose photographs, the website says, “were chosen by their moms.” The teams who work on the projects are an organic blend of volunteers from all over the country, Elliot said. They came on board through a mixture of recommendations and various fairs/speaker engagements. If they were not friends or colleagues initially, many now are.
Great, but idealism, alas, doesn't pay the rent. Mick is the head of the The Ebeling Group (designed the opening title sequence for James Bond Quantum of Solace and key graphic packages in Stranger Than Fiction.) Elliot runs Beyond Cinema magazine, writes screenplays and produces documentaries. Any projects in India? “From the feedback we're getting, we understand that an extension of our Project Daniel, might be well suited for a roll-out to different parts of India.”
We're in Venice Beach, California, he said, and added, “Next time you're in town we'll grab a bite on Abbot Kinney Blvd and maybe I'll give you a sneak peek of some of our additional “Daniel” footage.” Thanks, Elliot, I'll take you up on that.