December 15, 2017

Standing Up to the Absurd One Story at a Time

Mick Ebeling was surprised when Time Magazine named his "EyeWriter" one of the 50 best  inventions of 2010. He had wanted to help Los Angeles artist Tony "Tempt1" Quan draw again after he was completely paralyzed by Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

When Ebeling first met him, Tempt1 was lying in bed and only able to communicate using a card of letters and numbers someone held up to help him spell his message. Speaking to Sterling Sessions guests gathered in the auditorium of Kansas City's National WWI Museum, Ebeling said he asked Tempt1's father why they didn't have one of those "Stephen Hawking machines." Hawking also has ALS and communicates with a computer-based system mounted on his wheelchair -- an infrared switch on his glasses detects his cheek muscle movements, which he uses to select characters on his keyboard.

Tempt1's father explained that such a system was financially out of reach, which troubled Ebeling, then still mostly working as a producer in the film industry. He knew he had to solve the problem.

"If you see something that's absurd from a human standpoint -- no expertise, no initials behind your name that show you have the right to do this but it has to happen -- you commit, then you figure out how you're going to pull it off," Ebeling said.

He founded Not Impossible Labs; gathered innovative friends; and with a pair of cheap sunglasses, a coat hanger and a web camera, created a method for Tempt1 to use his eyes to communicate and draw. The original pair of glasses is on permanent display at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

According to MoMA's web entry for the display: "From his hospital room, wirelessly connected to a laptop and laser-tagging apparatus installed in downtown LA, the artist can paint graffiti tags in color, which are then projected at a superhuman scale in real time -- so that viewers see the glowing tag as it is created -- on buildings."

The software, hardware and assembly instructions are publicly available so anyone can reproduce the EyeWriter. Inventing an affordable fix and handing over the blueprints to those who need it has become one of the hallmarks of Not Impossible Labs.

More recently, in 2013, Ebeling learned about a doctor in Sudan who was the sole medical provider in a 1,500-mile radius.

Because of President Omar al-Bashir's practice of dropping jet fuel and shrapnel-filled steel drums from airplanes, the doctor found himself frequently performing amputations on maimed limbs. He said of all the things he was called upon to do, amputations were the worst.

When Ebeling dug deeper into this story, he learned about a then-12-year-old boy named Daniel who had lost both of his arms during one such attack. Ebeling, the father of three boys, said that when Daniel awoke from the surgery, he said "If I could die, I would."

Ebeling said, "I get that part, I get the despair. But this is the part that got me: 'If I could die, I would, because now I'm going to be such a burden to my family.' And to me that's absurd."

So Not Impossible Labs, with the help of Richard Van As, South African inventor of the RoboBeast 3D printer and ROBOHAND, created a new arm for Daniel. Even better, Not Impossible Labs trained Sudanese locals on how to use the technology to print limbs for other amputees on the equipment the lab left behind.

Part of Not Impossible Labs' vision involves finding that one person who most poignantly represents a difficulty faced by hundreds or thousands of others. More than 50,000 Sudanese have suffered amputations under al-Bashir, a statistic, which, gruesome as it is, is still just a statistic.

Ebeling knows statistics don't move people to act, but stories do. So each time he works toward a solution, he finds his "one" to tell a story about.

"How do we pull all this off? Because we shouldn't," Ebeling said. "We're not the right ones to figure out all these problems. The reason my team's able to do this is that we didn't get the memo that we're not supposed to be able to do it. We approach every problem with this beautiful, limitless naivete. We find our 'one' and we just say: Geronimo, this has to change."

Mick Ebeling spoke at VML's Sterling Sessions, an event timed to coincide with VML's 25th anniversary, that featured national thought leaders and marketing luminaries contemplating what's next for our industry and beyond. To see more from the Sterling Sessions, visit