Mick Ebeling

Meet the Speaker: Mick Ebeling

Mick Ebeling began his career as a film and television producer. Now, the filmmaker traffics in making the seemingly impossible possible.  First stop on that journey was the EyeWriter, a device that enabled his friend Tempt, a graffiti artist paralyzed by ALS, to create art using only the movement of his eyes. Since then, through his nonprofit Not Impossible Labs, Ebeling has continued to pursue collaborations with a personal twist. Inspired by Daniel Omar, a Sudanese teenager who lost his arms, Project Daniel created an open-source, 3D prosthetic printing lab aimed at helping victims of the Sudanese civil war.

In advance of his upcoming Chicago Ideas Conversation with Jeanne Marie Olson, we talked to Ebeling via e-mail about how he tackles such complex problems—and what he plans to solve next.

Mick Ebeling

In his recent book Not Impossible, Mick Ebeling chronicles he used the skills he picked up as a filmmaker to tackle seemingly impossible problems.

Working on the EyeWriter was in many ways a personal project.  What was it like to tackle—and complete—that type of project?  How did the personal nature of the project play into what you were able to accomplish?

When I first sat down with Tempt’s father and brother, I told them we were going to give them money and asked them what they intended to use it for. Tempt’s brother said emphatically, “I just want to talk to my brother again.” That really hit home for me. I am a father, and I am a brother, just like these two men. How could I not help?

I promised them right then and there that we would find a way to help Tempt communicate again, and I told them that we would go one step further. We would make it so Tempt could actually draw again. My philosophy is to commit, then figure it out. Nothing about that is as easy as it sounds. Committing can be daunting and scary. You start to hear yourself say, “What if I fail?” and “You can’t do this.” As scared as I was that I might fail Tempt, I ignored that voice. I mean, if I didn’t do something, who would? Nobody had thus far.

The eyewriter

Using the EyeWriter, Tempt was able to create art through only the movement of his eyes.

Creating the EyeWriter was an absolutely exhilarating experience. A group of computer geniuses and I were on a mission to help Tempt. We were fans of his art—we wanted to see him make more. I simply couldn’t allow an artist like him remain silenced. When we finally completed the EyeWriter, Tempt described it best: “I feel like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could take a breath.” Knowing that was the effect we had on Tempt, I knew that we had done something truly special. We had given him his voice back. Tempt was, and still is, a constant inspiration to us.

Why has it been important for your projects to be open source?  What further applications and variations have resulted?
When it comes to somebody’s quality of life, it should not be something that is governed by their socio-economic status. That is a fundamental human right in my book.
The great thing about putting something out into the world for free is that there is an increased likelihood that it will evolve into something more. When you subscribe to the concept of open source and release your code or inventions to the world, there is this passion that happens within others to try and do something more with it, so it typically gets better. It is really remarkable when you see it all play out.
So much good has come from open sourcing technology. Take Shea Ako, for example. His son Alejandro is a two-and-a-half year old who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, which prevents motor messages sent from the brain from being received by the muscles. He can only move his eyes, fingers and toes a little bit. Shea, an engineer, wanted to give his son the ability to independently operated a power wheelchair. Unable to afford one, Shea developed his own. Using what was in public domain, Shea was able to create a wheelchair Alejandro could operate with his toes. The chair was a lot of hard work that became a simple gift: Alejandro could move on his own again.
How do you decide what projects Not Impossible Labs will pursue?  What compelled you to work on the EyeWriter and Project Daniel?
Both of these projects came to me because I said yes to something. With the EyeWriter, it started with an invite to a graffiti art show. The art I saw there was simply magnificent. There was one artist in particular I loved. This was my first time seeing Tempt’s art. When I asked if Tempt was at the show, I quickly learned of his condition. That’s when I knew I needed to sit down with Tempt’s family. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to help.
When I heard the story of Daniel losing his arms, I was sitting in my house. I had a clear view down the hall where my boys sleep. My first thought was, “What if this had happened to one of them?” I knew I would do anything in my power to give them back simple abilities like being able to feed themselves. In identifying with Daniel’s situation, I couldn’t just close my computer and walk away. Again, I committed without knowing how the heck I was going to pull it off.
As we look forward at Not Impossible Labs, there are so many things that come across our desks where we can really help people. Right now, we are growing quickly and where we put our resources is never an easy decision. I look forward to the day where our crowdsourcing engine and resources are so efficient that we are not in charge of choosing the next project, our crowd​ is.
What unexpected lessons have you taken from your work on these projects? 
Most people will ask me why I did these projects. I never really focused on that. These projects taught me what I now call “The Three Rules of How.” The first rule: singularity of focus. We didn’t set out to make the next big thing when we made the EyeWriter. We just wanted to help Tempt. Because of that, there were no distractions. Singularity kept us on track. The second rule: give it away. Giving something away can be a powerful thing, but nothing prepared me for the effect of The EyeWriter. The fact that we gave it away was easily one of the most important components of the project. The third is: beautiful, limitless n. Naiveté was key to taking on the EyeWriter with brave abandon. We didn’t take the time to decide if we were supposed to do it. We didn’t know that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in just two and a half weeks. Because we didn’t know any of this, we didn’t even contemplate the idea of failure.
What’s the next big idea you’re pursuing?
We are in the beginning stages of creating a low-cost, pediatric exoskeleton to help kids with cerebral palsy regain the ability to walk. By the end of the year, we hope to build 10 of these. From there, we plan to release them into underdeveloped countries. Within a year from launch, we hope to have kids who have never walked before, walk for the first time. That is just going to be awesome to witness. I can’t wait.
Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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