Mick Ebeling Is Committed to Solving the Impossible

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The most common impediment to solving everyday problems is excuses. Either we’re too busy, too tired or lack the resources and connections to find solutions to injustices we see throughout our community and the world.

What if we all simply promised to solve the problem without having a plan or solution in mind? Instead of thinking it through, what if we just made a commitment and went from there?

That was the approach taken by producer and entrepreneur Mick Ebeling, who—by leaping without looking—changed his future and the world with the invention of the Eyewriter eye-tracking system.

In a conversation with Life is Beautiful’s Beautiful Moments podcast host, journalist and author Cal Fussman, Ebeling describes the chance encounter that led to a friendship with graffiti artist Tony Quan, a.k.a. Tempt1, and his family.

Paralyzed following an ALS diagnosis, Quan was only able to communicate with his eyes and could not afford an advanced machine, such as the one used by late physicist Stephen Hawking, to relay messages back and forth. Instead, his family utilized a rudimentary method of blinking and pointing to letters to communicate with Quan.

Wanting to solve the problem yet having no idea how, Ebeling decided to commit.

He told the family, “We’ll get him one of those Stephen Hawking machines, but why don’t we also figure out if we can make a tool for him to communicate with his eye.”

Suddenly, Ebeling found himself committing to something “that I had no business doing.” He and his wife had carved themselves a very successful niche with their production company, The Ebeling Group, collaborating on art and design for credit sequences in films such as Quantum of Solace and Stranger Than Fiction, but neither had the professional experience to solve the problem.

Yet Ebeling had made a commitment, and that was that.

“Communication should be the ability to express yourself; [it] shouldn’t be hinged to money or insurance,” he explains. “I was like, ‘All right, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to make it. We’re going to do it.’

Assembling a team of programmers, engineers and others at his California home, Ebeling went to work solving the problem, and within three weeks they’d created the Eyewriter.

As Ebeling explains, “[It was] made of cheap sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, which is where I live, a coat hanger that we duct-taped to the side of the glass as we bent it around to the front. We zip-tied a webcam that we cracked open that focused [the] back pupil.That webcam used the pupil as a tracking point, so that as he moved his eyes back and forth—which we knew he could do from the letter board that he was using—it would move the cursor on the screen. Then as he would blink, that would be the click of your finger on the mouse.”

At a hospital, Ebeling and his team put the device on Quan, and “he drew again for the first time in front of his family and friends.”

That success, and the overwhelming sense of joy in seeing Quan doing what no one thought he’d ever do again, inspired Ebeling to create Not Impossible Labs, an organization committed to solving the unsolvable problems of humanity.

Ebeling now lives by a process he calls “commit and then figure it out.”

“That kind of intention of saying, ‘We’re going to do it, but I have no effing clue how I’m going to pull it off,’ is now this principle that we live by,” he says. “When you see something that’s absurd from the human point of view—not an expertise, or any kind of intelligence or degree or research—you just see something and you’re like, ‘That’s not right. It shouldn’t be that way,’ then you say, ‘I’m going to change it.’”

Hear Ebeling discuss his work in the complete Beautiful Moments podcast below. Want to listen on the go? Download the podcast here.

Episode Four: An Interview with Mick Ebeling