Deaf singer 'hears' music with help from 'Not Impossible' tech-hackers

By Gabriel Noble

“I’m a storyteller and a hacker and a maker,” Mick Ebeling explains to Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric at his company headquarters in Venice Beach, Calif. “I look at the world and look for things that we think are impossible. And then we just figure out, come hell or high water, how to make it possible.” With the mission of using technology for the sake of humanity, Ebeling founded Not Impossible Labs.

In 2007, Ebeling was inspired by renowned graffiti artist Tempt One, who had developed ALS and was paralyzed from head to toe. He made a promise to Tempt One’s father and brother that he would commit to finding a way to enable Tempt One to not only communicate again, but also to practice his art again.

With no previous experience in ocular recognition, Ebeling said the promise was like “signing a check that he had no idea how to cash.” But together with a community of other passionate and fearless innovators and “hacker programmers” from around the world, Ebeling was able to keep his promise. The device they created, called the Eyewriter, allows paralyzed individuals to use eye movements to communicate with others and create art. The device is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ebeling then found himself in the Nuba Mountains in war-torn South Sudan, making a 3D prosthetic limb for a boy named Daniel he had read about just 4 months before who had lost his arms after a bombing in a field outside his village. Daniel, upon learning that he was armless, was quoted in Time magazine as saying, “If I could die today, I would, so I will not be a burden to my family.” A father of three boys himself, that was enough to motivate Ebeling to find a creative solution and thus initiate Project Daniel. In November 2013, Daniel fed himself for the first time in two years with his new, 3D printed prosthetic arm. “That was just one of those moments that was — I will never forget that for as long as I live.” When Couric asks him about his views on the potential of 3D printing in health care and beyond, Ebeling explains, “Essentially, it’s the printing press in a box, right? It’s… it is a renaissance device. It’s revolutionary.”

When Couric asks Ebeling what’s next on his list to make “not impossible,” he takes her to the small cottage-turned-lab in the backyard of his office to reveal his latest endeavor called Music: Not Impossible. Mandy Harvey, a jazz singer who has been profoundly deaf for the past eight years (since she was 18 years old) is in the lab with Not Impossible lead developer Daniel Belquer, who is putting a device prototype on the singer’s body. The straps, each carrying tiny motors, will send different aspects of the recorded music to various parts of her body. “Today she’s actually going to sing, and it will be the first time that she’s felt her own voice on her body,” Ebeling says. Upon singing, perfectly in tune with the programmed instrumental of her original song, Harvey is overwhelmed with emotion and, using sign language, says, “That was cool! I can feel the bass, the drums, the piano.” She predicts this will drastically improve her capabilities to perform her music with a live band, for a live audience. “That was amazing!” the humble yet immensely proud Ebeling says to Harvey as he gives her a hug of gratitude. “This is just the beginning.”

Having already made his mark in Hollywood as a successful film producer, creating animation and visual effects for such films as “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Quantum of Solace,” Ebeling is now fully committed to finding creative solutions to tackle social needs of the world, one person at a time. He was recently named as a 2015 Agent of Change by WIRED, honored by Advertising Age on its “Creativity 50” list, and he was the recipient of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year Award. Describing it as his “personal manifesto,” Ebeling’s first book, “Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done,” traces his journey of creating both the Eyewriter and Project Daniel and is meant to inspire everyone to challenge what has been deemed too expensive, too complex, or simply, impossible.

“I just need to decide to do it. And then figure out how to do it,” Ebeling says. “It’s definitely addicting.”