Design for Life – The Eye Writer
Mick Ebeling, Tempt and the “EyeWriter”
By Denise Potts Mueller for Mick Ebeling
Issue 9 Fall 2011
Individuals are provided with a capability and access that is nothing short of incredible through technology every single day. Mick Ebeling stepped in and recognized an opportunity in the health industry for a different kind of enabling technology. He reports that he was simply following through on a promise to help a paralyzed artist. But, the result has been anything but simple. Ebeling knew that enabling someone with a severe disability was “Not Impossible!” Mick Ebeling has designed a life changing device. He has changed his life and the life of the artist he made the promise to. Ebeling is now on a new life path. He wants to empower people to take a stand, foster open-minded thinking, and generate new opportunities.
“Dad, my legs are tingling.”
That was how it started in 2003 for Tempt, who during the 80’s was a well-known graffiti artist in the United States. “Tempt One,” was working in Los Angeles as a graffiti writer, publisher and activist at the time.
Tempt felt a tingling sensation after coming home from a run one day. Unfortunately, it was the tragic onset of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It is neurodegenerative and affects one to three out of every 100,000 people worldwide. For Tempt, the diagnosis meant his motor neurons would waste away and die, his brain would eventually be left without the ability to communicate with his limbs, and ultimately he may not even be able to even breathe on his own.
Ebeling owns The Ebeling Group (TEG) with locations in both New York and Los Angeles, and leads a creative task force specializing in design, film, and animation. The group has been recognized for their Grammy nominated music videos, Sundance feature films, and award-winning branded content for the gaming arena as well as for Fortune 100 brands such as Diesel, Coca-Cola, and Nike. Made up of artists in their own right, TEG was well-connected to the graffiti community they respect and admire. When TEG learned of Tempt’s story, Ebeling and his team felt compelled to assist and sponsor him. But when Mick Ebeling met Tempt in 2007, Tempt was completely paralyzed. All he had left was the use of his eyes. The disease had turned this passionate, gifted artist’s body into a cage.
Ebeling met with the graffiti artist’s brother and father with the intention of handing them a check, a monetary gift the group had raised. However, when Ebeling asked what they would do with the gift, he was struck by the brother’s response: “I just want to be able to talk to Tempt again. I just want to be able to communicate with him, and for him to be able to communicate with me.”
Ebeling’s imaginative and problem-solving disposition led him to further investigate that response and then to ask the question: “But I’ve seen paralyzed people, don’t they all have the ability, like Stephen Hawking, to communicate?”
“No,” the brother said “Unless you’re in the upper echelon, and you have really good insurance, those devices aren’t really accessible to you.”
Ebeling continued — “So, how do you communicate?” The brother went on to explain that Tempt runs his finger along a page with letters, and then he blinks to signal when he’s hit the right letter. A laborious process, communicating even the simplest of thoughts is a chore.
For Ebeling, a leader in forward thinking who is active in creating strategic Creative Task Forces with world-renowned design/directing collectives, this was not only archaic but a travesty!
It was at this moment in their conversation, that Mick Ebeling made a life-changing decision. He promised that he personally would see to it that Tempt received one of the devices that would allow him to communicate, that Tempt was going to be an artist again.
Ebeling recalls this moment in speaking engagements:
“I showed up with the desire to just write a check; instead I wrote a check that I had no freaking idea how I was going to cash.”
Embarking on his vision to enable Tempt’s way back to his art, Ebeling seemed to be taking on what appeared to everyone else as impossible.
The first step was to get Tempt the device reserved only for those with deep pockets. This proved relatively easy. Within a year, after consistent badgering and embarrassment of the insurance company in question, the sought-after machine arrived. Ebeling was now able to exchange emails with Tempt —“I call him Yoda, because he is one of the most wise and thoughtful guys.”
With the communication hurdle out of the way, Ebeling moved right into his next endeavor. He promised to give Tempt the tools to create his graffiti once again, and unbeknownst to him, this would prove to be his greatest design challenge.
Ebeling’s promise to Tempt’s brother and father that day began to consume his life. It became what he now refers to as the coolest project he’s ever worked on. His hope was that he would not only allow Tempt the ability to see his way back to his art, but ultimately be able to make the technology accessible and affordable to all artists with severe disabilities. Using strategic design, Ebeling wanted to create something that would serve a purpose and form a foundation upon which individuals who would not otherwise have the chance, would now be able to attain the “Good Life.”
A few months after the seemingly unrealistic undertaking began, the journey really took off. During a conference Ebeling met the men behind the Graffiti Research Lab (GRL). GRL had developed a technology that allows artists to draw with a laser pointer on any surface and project the image in the negative space. They had been showing off the technology in a variety of art installations up to this point. Upon his return home while conversing over dinner with his wife about GRL’s practices, Ebeling was inspired: “If we now know a technology exists to draw on a building with lasers, and we know a device exists that can control things with your eyes; then perhaps all we need to do is to develop a way for Tempt to control those lasers with his eyes.”
It was through this realization that the once seemingly impossible project began to seem possible — they would figure out a way for Tempt to control a laser with his eyes, and he could once again create his graffiti.
Putting together a team to design the hardware and software needed to develop the idea, Ebeling utilized his established global arsenal of top talent: “We flew seven programmers from all over the world (literally every corner of the world) to our house. My wife and kids and I moved into our back garage, and these hackers and programmers, conspiracy theorists, and anarchists took over. For over two weeks, we programmed. My kids got involved, my dog got involved, and we created the EyeWriter—using a cheap pair of sunglasses that we bought at the boardwalk on Venice Beach, some copper wire, a mix of stuff from Home Depot and Radio Shack, and a PS3 camera that we hacked open and mounted to an LED light. Now, there’s a device that is free. You build this yourself. We publish the code for free. You download the software for free. We’ve created a device that has absolutely no limitations.”
In 2008, after a year of planning, two weeks of intense hard work, and all-nighters they gathered in Tempt’s room for a grand unveiling. After 7 years, Temp drew again for the first time.
Ebeling’s team moved Tempt’s bed so that he could see out his window, and set up a projector on a wall in the parking lot outside of his hospital room. Drawing again for the first time in front of his family and friends, you can only imagine the emotions that night in the parking lot. Ironically, the team actually had to break into the lot space, creating a truly legit “graf scene.”
When it was all done,
Tempt sent an email: “That was the first time I’ve drawn anything in seven years. I felt like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down, and pulled my head up so I could take a breath.”
The EyeWriter is a revolutionary invention, but Ebeling and his team did not create it to make money. They created it to improve lives. The EyeWriter designs are available for free and the software is open-source so it too is free and can be easily improved and modified. “We’ve designed a device that has absolutely no limitation,” Ebeling says. “There’s no insurance company that can say no. There’s no hospital that can say no. Anybody that’s paralyzed now has access and they can draw or communicate simply using their eyes.”
Ebeling says they’re still developing the device. “Someone with that much talent and artistic potential deserves so much more, so we’re working now to make it faster, better, stronger.”
The result of a simple promise to help someone get back their ability to communicate, the EyeWriter now helps to meet the needs and desires of artists and writers who have lost their ability to express their creativity; Ebeling and his team have created a solution that has made the impossible, possible. While there were existing products to help ALS patients communicate — they were extremely expensive, heavy, and difficult to acquire through health insurance. Commercial eye-trackers which use computers and small cameras to harness eye movements for writing, highlighting website text and other tasks, have hefty price tags ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.
By identifying the situation, brainstorming solutions and establishing a clear direction, Ebeling and his consortium were able to create a lightweight, low-cost, portable device for art and communication — and have made it available to anyone who needs it.
The EyeWriter’s/Open Eye Initiative success has led Ebeling to launch The Not Impossible Foundation (NIF), a non-profit organization comprised of thinkers, dreamers, and doers whose mission is to take ideas that once seemed impossible and make them possible.
The EyeWriter is NIF’s Project 001, the first of many to come. The EyeWriter remains an ongoing collaborative effort meant to give back creative freedom to anyone who has been affected by neuromuscular syndrome. The EyeWriter construction information is made freely available on the EyeWriter website and, in fact, The Not Impossible Foundation (NIF) partners are keen to see what modifications other people make to the design. They encourage the sharing of information, and their version costs less than US$80 to make.
NIF’s long-term goal is to create a global professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists, and ALS patients from around the world who will use local materials and open-source research to creatively connect and make eye art. Some of the international initiatives financed by NIF have lead to the creation of ongoing projects such as in Mumbai, the MubaiWriter, where they have blogged their progress haggling prices and building the headset from local materials.
In 2010, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), contacted Ebeling to have Tempt be a part of their exhibition to celebrate the best street and graffiti artists from around the world. All arrangements were confirmed, and days before the opening MOCA called to say they reduced the space allotted for Tempt’s work, claiming it was “not significant enough, and too artsy.” Tempt and Ebeling declined the museum invitation and took their sculpture piece on displace at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA).
What makes this piece of the story so significant is that it demonstrates the type of radical collaboration upon which the EyeWriter was built.
It is no surprise that the EyeWriter is winning acclaim and accumulating numerous awards —including TIME Magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2010, Design Museum Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2010, and Prix Ars Electronica. The Prix Ars Electronica is one of the most important international awards for creativity and pioneering spirit in the field of digital media.
After a recent appearance by Ebeling in Denver, TEDxDU and the Craig Hospital in Denver, CO committed to help move the EyeWriter forward. Ebeling reminded everyone, NIF is actively seeking to further develop these kinds of initiatives and continues to seek radical collaborators of all kinds — technologists, grant writers, organizational mavens, administrative help to sift through the mountain of emails — to take the EyeWriter to the next level.
About the project, Tempt said,
“Art is a tool of empowerment and social change, I consider myself blessed to be able to create and use my work to promote health reform, bring awareness about ALS and help others.”
Ebeling continues on his initial journey of discovery and shares his learning with others in speaking engagements that include TED events and the Microsoft MGX in late July. He teaches that “If you see something that’s not possible, make it possible. I’m not a programmer. I’d never done anything with ocular recognition technology. But I just recognized something and associated myself with amazing people so that we could make something happen.”
Mick Ebeling problem-solving form, he moves onto conclude with his call to action: “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?”
Design and build your ecosystem, your consortiums and partnerships. Collaborate to find the
best what who and how to get it done
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Desire to take action, inability to hold back
>> Desire to take action, inability to hold back
>> Define exact scope, clear meaning and direction
>> Forward thinking toward new levels of achievement
>> Apply design thinking and problem solving toward new levels of achievementDefine exact scope, clear meaning and direction
>> Forward thinking toward new levels of achievement
>> Apply design thinking and problem solving toward new levels of achievement
About the Author:
Mick began his professional career in the production and animation industry launching one of the first ever Mac-based design companies. He then founded his first non-profit, Digital Groove: an LA Unified School System backed venture exposing inner city kids to the latest technology and pairing them with elite Hollywood post-production mentors. In 2000, Mick launched his own production company, The Ebeling Group, which has won many major industry awards for their work. Directors and Creatives under the TEG name worldwide add testimony to Ebeling’s commitment to cultivate the best talent from every corner of the globe.
After befriending an ALS patient and renowned street artist, Tempt, Mick embarked on one of the most rewarding chapters of his career – creating the EyeWriter- a practical, low-cost solution to allow people suffering from neuromuscular diseases and paralysis to be able to draw and communicate again using only their eyes. With the success of The EyeWriter, Mick launched The Not Impossible Foundation (NIF) – an emerging non-profit organization comprised of thinkers, dreamers, and doers, whose mission is to take ideas that once seemed impossible to possible when the right people are connected and empowered. The EyeWriter has won several awards and gained noteworthy press since 2008. Most recently, the EyeWriter was featured in Time Magazine’s “Top 50 Inventions of 2010.”
The Ebeling Group
The Not Impossible Foundation
TIME: The 50 Best Inventions of 2010, Nov 2010
TED Ideas Worth Spreading – Mick Ebeling: The invention that unlocked a locked-in artist, March 2011
The Graffiti Research Lab