Tech evangelist Mick Ebeling redefines what’s possible in addressing “absurdities.”
By Russ Banham
Every Not Impossible project begins with two fundamental questions: If not now, then when? If not me, then who? “When you see things in the world that are just not right and should not be that way, the absurdity of it gets under your skin,” says Mick Ebeling, founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs. “We have these amazing technologies today at our disposal, but they’re typically developed to make bazillions of dollars and not with the more important goal of helping another person in need. That’s what we start with. And we run with it until we figure something out.”
Ebeling, named by Fortune as one of the Top 50 World’s Greatest Leaders, is best known for the Eyewriter, an AI-assisted device enabling the Los Angeles graffiti artist Tony “Tempt1” Quan—who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003 and became unable to move, speak, and breathe—to communicate and create art after seven years of immobility. The Eyewriter tracked the movements of Tempt’s eyes to produce words and brushstrokes. Time magazine named the device one of the 50 best inventions of 2010, and it is now in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. \
Other projects followed, all focused on what Ebeling and his team call “absurdities” that result in one person’s not having abilities that everyone else takes for granted. For each project, Ebeling reaches out to his universe of friends—software coders, engineers, designers, and artists—who are eager to join him in making the world a fairer bargain.
These team members have been engaged for the past two years in two Not Impossible projects, each one inspired by a single person or group of people with the same condition. Memory: Not Impossible was inspired by Caitlin Little, a teenager with anterograde amnesia who’s unable to retain new memories for more than a minute at a time; and Music: Not Impossible was inspired by a gathering of young deaf people at a concert led by a deaf DJ whom Ebeling saw in an online video.
“They were standing close to the speakers receiving the vibrations from the music and I had an aha moment,” he says. “A friend of mine suffered a head injury and lost his sense of smell. I realized you don’t smell with your nose, you smell with your brain. That made me realize you don’t hear with your ears, you hear with your brain. I figured there might be a way to create a music experience for the deaf through touch signals that the brain processed—a wearable technology that imparted a wide range of frequencies, and even melodic sweeps and swoons, to the user’s skin.”
MEMORY: NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Ultimate Software, a provider of cloud-based human capital management systems, funded much of the research behind Memory: Not Impossible, the project involving people with memory impairments, although Ebeling believes the solution can eventually assist people with cognitive declines like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “Caitlin is an extreme circumstance and if we can make it work for her, we can make it work for anyone,” he says.
Among the project’s team members is Silicon Valley engineer Prashant Marathay, a program manager who served stints at Alphabet, Apple, and Intel before founding hisown tech company, Infinite Options, in 2018. Marathay saw a presentation on Memory: Not Impossible that Ebeling gave in early 2019 and volunteered to join the team.
Like other team members, he was eager to make a difference in the life of Caitlin Little, whose amnesia stems from a concussion she suffered during a high school track practice, colliding head-to-head with a teammate in October 2017. Although she can remember everything in her life up to the accident, her working memory lasts only 60 seconds at a time. Caitlin’s mother Jenn had to take a leave of absence from her job as a teacher to care for her daughter.
At Marathay’s first Memory: Not Impossible roundtable discussion in Los Angeles, he met his fellow team members for the first time. “I was amazed at the talent sitting alongside me—doctors, artificial intelligence experts, hardware developers, and software designers,” Marathay says. “But what struck me most was the twinkle in everyone’s eyes that we were doing something remarkable.”
Like other team members, Marathay kept his day job at Infinite Options and tapped the company’s brain trust in assisting the Memory: Not Impossible project. “I led a group of employees to think outside the box in helping someone like Caitlin,” he says. “Caitlin is forced to live in the moment. Consequently, we felt the technology solution also needed to reside in the moment.”
A series of brainstorming sessions culminated in Infinite Options’ first contribution to the project—a mobile application called Manifest. The prototype app, which canoperate on a smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch, receives information transmitted in real time over the internet from a variety of sensors (visual, audio, and touch, for now) in proximity to Caitlin or embedded in her clothes.
The data from the sensors is integrated along with other information coming from facial- and speaker-recognition software embedded in the app to guide Caitlin through the mundane moments of life we all take for granted. For example, a motion sensor captures her waking up in the morning and alerts her smartphone or other mobile device to buzz, prompting her to log on to the app.
“The app may tell her she needs time to brush her teeth for two minutes,” says Marathay. “Once done, she may be guided to take a shower, and, after that, to get dressed for the day. Images on the app can show some clothes she’s recently worn to allow her to choose something different, if she pleases.”
Once she’s dressed, the app provides options for breakfast and related tutorials, scrambling some eggs, for instance. Caitlin’s appointments for the day are provided, along with relevant transportation information. “Haptics [touch] sensors in her shoes direct the way to the bus or train location, vibrating in her left shoe when she needs to turn left and in her right shoe to turn right, with the app explaining what these vibrations mean,” Marathay says.
On the way, the app’s voice and facial recognition features may alert her to the presence of a friend or acquaintance, and provide the context of the relationship. “Our hope is the repetition of all this information will result in some memory improvements, allowing us to take the training wheels off in some cases,” Marathay says.
In November 2019, Infinite Options presented the prototype to the full Memory: Not Impossible team, which green-lit the development of a working model for tryouts in spring 2020. “We have high hopes,” says Ebeling, “but have learned from experience that refinements are inevitable.”
MUSIC: NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Another project in progress helps hearing-impaired individuals experience the pleasures of music through skin sensations. A key contributor is Daniel Belquer, a Brazil-born theater artist interested in the intersection of art, science, and technology, and who received the 2019 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award. His graduate thesis in experimental theatre at UNIRIO in Rio de Janeiro examined the effects of unusual vibrations on the audience experience.
Ebeling heard about Belquer’s work and sought out his involvement in Music: Not Impossible.
Given his background in the effects of vibration on the human body, Belquer explored a haptics-based technology: He cut his shirt and trousers into straps, and asked a seamstress at a local dry cleaner in Brooklyn, where he lived, to sew a series of wires connecting the haptic actuators at 24 points.
Each actuator produces a “buzz” that changes in texture according to the frequency and amplitude of a particular piece of music. Altogether, more than 250 different vibrating intensities are available. By producing these different vibrations at each of the 24 points in the wearable harness, Belquer was able to capture the melody and rhythm of a musical piece.
“We’ve been able to spread 3,990 frequencies across five octaves in each of the actuators, which we’ve embedded in a wearable vest,” Belquer says. “The combination of different frequencies across multiple actuators produces interesting harmonic textures, while the amplitude components in the actuators correspond to the dynamics of the music. We’ve also attached a small sub-woofer on the back to provide an oomph factor for bolder vibrations.”
He presented his haptic prototype to the Music: Not Impossible team and the project’s primary backer, Skullcandy, a maker of wireless ear buds, in 2014. The haptic tracks were composed by Belquer to synchronize with music from Bach to Wiz Khalifa. The model impressed his fellow team members, impelling Ebeling to insist that Belquer and his young family move to Los Angeles.
“Mick said, ‘I’m buying you tickets right now,’” Belquer recalls. “Two days later, my wife, daughter, and I relocated to live in his back house for seven months before getting our own place nearby.”
In March, the newest version of the haptic device was released for public dissemination at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. “The show features a dozen musical artists who have created experiences using our platform,” says Belquer. The artists include Levi Patel, Candida Borges, Robbie Wilde, and Chase Burton, among others. Audience members have the opportunity to wear the harness, which now includes wrist and ankle bands with embedded haptic actuators.
While the technology offers a uniquely tactile and visceral way for deaf people to enjoy music, the hope is to scale the product commercially so that all people will be able to do the same, augmenting their listening pleasure though skin vibrations that make music a more immersive experience.
A hundred years from now, Ebeling says people may become accustomed to receiving music as textured vibrations through their skin. “Our theory is, the more we listen to music with our skin, the more sophisticated our brains will become in interpreting that music.”
Ebeling is referring to the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability to adapt to new stimuli and change accordingly. “We might even begin to prefer the experience of listening with our skin, absorbing it through thousands of skin pores instead of just two holes in our heads. It’s certainly not impossible.”
Nothing absurd about that at all. Not Impossible Labs
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and best-selling author.