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The Invention that Unlocked a Locked-In Artist March 1, 2011

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Mick Ebeling shares his journey in which he pledged to help a paralyzed graffiti artist and took cheap technology to new heights by inventing the EyeWriter.

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I have had the distinct blessing in my life to have worked on a bunch of amazing projects. But the coolest I ever worked on was around this guy. This guy's name is TEMPT. TEMPT was one of the foremost graffiti artists in the 80s. And he came up home from a run one day and said, "Dad, my legs are tingling." And that was the onset of ALS. So TEMPT is now completely paralyzed. He only has use of his eyes.

I was exposed to him. I have a company that does design and animation, so obviously graffiti is definitely an intricate part of what we admire and respect in the art world. And so we decided that we were going to sponsor Tony, TEMPT, and his cause. So I went and met with his brother and father and said, "We're going to give you this money. What are you going to do with it?" And his brother said, "I just want to be able to talk to Tony again. I just want to be able to communicate with him and him to be able to communicate with me." And I said, "Wait a second, isn't that - I've seen Stephen Hawking - don't all paralyzed people have the ability to communicate via these devices?" And he said, "No, unless you're in the upper echelon, you've got really amazing insurance, you can't actually do that. These devices aren't accessible to people." And I said, "Well, how do you actually communicate?" Has everyone seen the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?" That's how they communicate - so run their finger along. I said, "That's archaic. How can that be?"

So I showed up with the desire to just write a check, and instead, I wrote a check that I had no freaking idea how I was going to cash. I committed to his brother and his father right then and there - I'm like, "All right, here's the deal: Tony's going to speak, we're going to get him a machine, and we're going to figure out a way for him to do his art again. Because it's a travesty that someone who still has all of that in him isn't able to communicate it."

So I spoke at a conference a couple months after that. I met these guys called GRL, Graffiti Research Lab, and they have a technology that allows them to project a light onto any surface and then, with a laser pointer, draw on it, and it just registers the negative space. So they go around and do art installations like this. All the things that go up there, they said there's a life cycle. First it starts with the sexual organs, then it starts with cuss words, then it was Bush slanders and then people actually got to art. But there was always a life-cycle to their presentations. So I went home and was having dinner with my wife and was telling her about this, and we were like, "Well wait a second if we know that this technology exists where you can use your eyes to control things, why don't we figure out a way for TEMPT to control a laser and he could do graf again, well that would be awesome."

So that started the journey. And about two years later, about a year later, after a bunch of organization and a bunch of moving things around, we'd accomplished a couple things. One, we battered down the doors of the insurance companies, and we actually got TEMPT a machine that let him communicate - a Stephen Hawking machine. (Applause) Which was awesome. And he's seriously one of the funniest - I call him Yoda, because you talk to the guy, you get an email from him, and you're like, "I'm not worthy. This guy's so amazing."

The other thing we did is we flew seven programmers from all over the world - literally every corner of the world - into our house. My wife and kids and I moved to our back garage, and these hackers and programmers and conspiracy theorists and anarchists took over our house. A lot of our friends thought we were absolutely stupid to do that and that we were going to come back and all the pictures on the wall would be removed and graf on the walls. But for over two weeks, we programmed, we went to the Venice boardwalk, my kids got involved, my dog got involved, and we created this.

This is called the EyeWriter, and you can see the description. This is a cheap pair of sunglasses that we bought at the Venice Beach boardwalk, some copper wire and some stuff from Home Depot and Radio Shack. We took a PS3 camera, hacked it open, mounted it to an LED light, and now there's a device that is free - you build this yourself, we publish the code for free, you download the software for free. And now we've created a device that has absolutely no limitations. There's no insurance company that can say "no." There's no hospital that can say "no." Anybody who's paralyzed now has access to actually draw or communicate using only their eyes.

(Applause)

Thank you. Thank you guys very much. That was awesome.

So at the end of the two weeks, we went back to TEMPT's room. I love this picture, because this is someone else's room and that's his room. So there's all this hustle and bustle going on for the big unveiling. And after over a year of planning, two weeks of programming, carb-fest and all-night sessions, Tony drew again for the first time in seven years. And this is an amazing picture, because this is his life support system, and he's looking over his life support system. We kicked his bed so he could see out. And we set up a projector on a wall out in the parking lot outside of his hospital. And he drew again for the first time, in front of his family and friends - and you can only imagine what the feeling in the parking lot was. The funny thing was, we had to break into the parking lot too, so we totally felt like we were legit in the whole graf scene too.

(Laughter)

So at the end of this, he sent us an email, and this is what the email said: "That was the first time I've drawn anything for seven years. I feel like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could breathe." Isn't that awesome.

(Applause)

So that's kind of our battle cry. That's what keeps us going and keeps us developing. And we've got such a long way to go with this. This is an amazing device, but it's the equivalent of an Etch A Sketch. And someone who has that kind of artistic potential deserves so much more. So we're in the process of of trying to figure out how to make it better, faster, stronger.

Since that time, we've had all kinds of acknowledgment. We've won a bunch of awards. Remember, it's free; none of us are making any money on this thing. It's all coming out of our own pockets. So the awards were like, "Oh, this is fantastic." Armstrong Twittered about us, and then in December, Time magazine honored us as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010, which was really cool.

(Applause)

The coolest thing about this - and this is what's completing the whole circle - is that in April of this year, at the Geffen MOCA in downtown Los Angeles, there's going to be an exhibition called "Art of the Streets." And "Art of the Streets" is going to have pretty much the bad-asses of the street art scene - Banksy, Shepard Fairey, CAWs - all of these guys will be there. TEMPT is going to be in the show, which is pretty awesome.

(Applause)

So basically this is my point: If you see something that's not possible, make it possible. Everything in this room wasn't possible - this stage, this computer, this mic, the EyeWriter - wasn't possible at one point. Make it possible - everyone in this room. I'm not a programmer, 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. And this is the question I want everyone to ask yourself every single day when you come up with something you feel that needs to be done. If not now, then when? And if not me, then who?

Thank you guys.

Courtesy of TED

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Source: TED

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The Invention that Unlocked a Locked-In Artist- March 1, 2011

- Mick Ebeling
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