Not Impossible Labs combines the power of storytelling and modern-day technology to make a difference in the world.
This is Part 2 of a five-part white paper series called Routes to the Future, in which we explore the innovations, challenges and opportunities in a new era of possibilities.
A decade ago, 3D-printed hearts, smart homes and self-driving cars belonged in the world of science fiction.
Today innovators are blurring the line between fantasy and reality, pushing the boundaries of technology and making the seemingly impossible, possible.
Film producer Mick Ebeling is one of those innovators.
Since 2008, Ebeling’s Not Impossible Labs has engineered, programmed, hacked and crowd-solved some of the world’s most vexing problems and provided low-cost solutions for some of the most vulnerable people around the globe.
Longitudes sat down with Ebeling to discuss his vision for the future and making technological innovations available to the masses.
Q: You started your career in production and design. What inspired you to start Not Impossible Labs?
A: Back in 2008, my wife and I were invited to a charity art show and fundraiser. We ended up meeting this incredible street artist from Los Angeles named Tony Quan who went by TEMPT. He was socially active and very loved. And then he came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which left him paralyzed and unable to draw.
I found it absurd that his family couldn’t afford the devices that would allow them to speak to Tony. I promised them that we would find a way for Tony to speak and draw again.
One thing led to another, and we ended up creating a solution called the EyeWriter, which allowed him to draw using his eyes. And the EyeWriter was really the genesis of Not Impossible Labs. There’s a TED talk you can watch that talks about the EyeWriter and how this all began.
But that exposure led to us saying, ‘Wow, maybe we can keep doing this. Maybe this isn’t just a one-off.’ And that’s what we did. Eventually, it got to the point of what we’re doing now where it’s a lifelong, year-long, 24-hour a day commitment, and it’s really fun.
“Not Impossible Labs’ mission is to change the world through technology and storytelling.”
We look at how we can take something and modify, adapt, re-engineer and reconstruct it. How do you take things and make it so that it accomplishes a fundamental human and social need?
The other side of what we do is make the stories readily available to people because that’s how people can find out about problems and be helped or help others.
Q: Do you believe storytelling can change the world?
A: We as a species can do and invent all kinds of great things, but if nobody knows about it, then it doesn’t do any good, right? If nobody knows about what we’re doing, it means no one is actually going to have access to a solution that could really help them. What we strive do is figure out how to create things and then get the story out to people so more people can be helped.
Q: How are technologies like 3D printing changing the landscape of humanitarian efforts? What are the opportunities and what are the barriers?
A: I think that technology is this daunting word where people are intimidated if they don’t have professional experience with it. Our point is that technology doesn’t have to be daunting, and if you’re driven more by the pragmatism –solving the absurdity – then you know that there is going to be a technological solution.
“Technology can be a daunting word. People are intimidated if they don’t have professional experience with it.”
The question is just finding those people that can make something impossible, possible. So I think one of the biggest limitations of technology is human fear of not knowing how to do something. We never know what we’re talking about when we start, but we figure out how to get it done. That mindset is driven by the ‘why’ and not the ‘how.’
3D printing has been a big one for us. It’s a tool that gives us the ability to prototype and test our theories and approaches in a rapid way. We know if we’re correct or if we need to scrap something and start again. The biggest things 3D printing offers are flexibility, resiliency and agility.
Whether or not 3D printing is going to be the overall end-manufacturing tool, it’s wonderful to know that it exists. The materials we can use in 3D printing are becoming more varied from carbon to cements. The variable outputs of the materials are what get really interesting. That’s when it goes from a pure prototyping and testing device into an actual manufacturing device.
Q: Has technology kept pace with your ambitions? In what areas do we need technological advancements to fulfill your mission?
A: I think technology can keep pace, but accessibility to the technology has not kept pace. There are many expensive solutions to a problem so the question is not if there is a solution.
It’s whether or not we can make it accessible. We don’t really face issues with technology, but often we face logistical issues like access to infrastructure. For example, with our hunger initiatives, the ability to tie into other entities’ back-end systems is crucial. The question is not whether something exists but rather how we can get to that particular solution.
Q: Tell us about some of your latest projects.
A: Music: Not Impossible is a project we’re working on to help the deaf community hear music. This is done through wireless and wearable clothing that sends vibrations replicating musical instruments to the user’s body. This kind of technology lets everyone, especially the hearing-impaired, experience music in a new way. The best part about these things is seeing it in use.
A few years ago, a musician named Mandy joined us at the lab, and using the wearables, she was able to sing perfectly on tempo. She said it was the first time she could ’hear’ her voice since she went deaf.
Q: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone tells you something is impossible?
A: Not. It’s funny – my kids get in more trouble if they say the word ‘impossible or ‘can’t’ than they do if they swear. Everything that’s possible today was impossible at first. So statistically, the inverse of that is true.
Everything that is impossible today is on the trajectory to becoming possible. That drives us. We know that just because it’s impossible at this moment doesn’t mean it’s impossible forever.
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