LOS ANGELES — Mick Ebeling arrived in Sudan with little more than a toolbox, rolls of plastic and two microwave-size 3-D printers.
He had endured a weeklong journey from Los Angeles, with stops in London, Johannesburg and Nairobi before reaching Juba, the capital of South Sudan. From there, he flew on a small twin-engine plane to Yida, where at a refugee camp he found Daniel Omar.
Ebeling had read a magazine article a few months earlier about the 16-year-old, whose hands and forearms had been blown off two years ago during an airstrike launched by the Sudanese government. The boy’s plight resonated with Ebeling, who tracked down the remote hospital where Daniel had received treatment. Over Skype, Ebeling told Daniel’s doctor: I think I can help.
After meeting in Yida, Ebeling and Daniel caught an 11-hour ride in the back of a Land Cruiser to Gidel, Sudan, a volatile region in the Nuba Mountains where Daniel’s doctor tends to amputees and other victims of the civil war plaguing the country.
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In a small tin shed, Ebeling connected a 3-D printer to a laptop. The printer began melting plastic to form three-dimensional pieces, which he then joined together like Legos.
He worked off a design created by his friend Richard Van As, a South African carpenter who lost four fingers from his right hand to a circular saw three years ago. After seeing a video posted online of a mechanical hand made for a costume in a theater production, Van As worked with its designer, Ivan Owen, in Seattle.
It took two days for Ebeling to print and construct a skeletal plastic hand bolted to an armlike cylinder. Nylon cords attached to each plastic finger snaked up the length of the apparatus so that when the wearer flexed his or her elbow, the cords tightened and pulled the fingers into a fist.
Once the prosthetic device was fitted to Daniel’s upper arm, the boy was able to wave, toss an object and feed himself with a spoon, major feats for someone who had been forced to rely on others for the most basic everyday tasks.
It was, Ebeling recalled later, “on par with watching my kids being born.”
Ebeling didn’t set out to be an inventor.
A Hollywood producer, he works on television shows, commercials and films, most notably executive producing the opening title sequence for the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace.” The 43-year-old graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a degree in political science. He has no medical or engineering background and no formal training in designing or building prosthetic devices.
But today, Ebeling finds himself the unlikely leader of a team dedicated to tackling the physical limitations that arise from conditions such as blindness and paralysis.
The group calls itself Not Impossible. Volunteers work out of a bungalow tucked behind the Venice Beach home that Ebeling shares with his wife and their three boys.
“This is our equivalent of the Hewlett-Packard garage,” he says of the light-filled, two-room space.
Ebeling’s unexpected foray into making medical devices began in 2007, when he attended a benefit for a graffiti artist who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over time the artist, known as Tempt One, had become trapped in his paralyzed body, unable to speak, gesture or draw.
At first, Ebeling considered donating money for Tempt’s health-care costs. But after meeting with the artist’s father and brother over lunch in Los Angeles, he pledged to do more.
He reached out to engineers he met at a design conference, pitching them on the idea of building a low-cost eye-tracking system. The end result: the EyeWriter, a pair of glasses affixed to a Web camera that enables people to draw on a computer with their eye movements.
Using the device, Tempt was able to create graffiti again.
The EyeWriter was named one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 by Time magazine, and a TED talk that Ebeling gave on the glasses received more than 850,000 views after it was posted on the nonprofit’s website. A team from Samsung contacted Ebeling to say it was building its own version based on the EyeWriter’s design.
“Thank you for your idea,” a Samsung Creativity Lab team member in South Korea wrote in an email to Ebeling. “It inspires us and let us to help people in need.”
The success of the EyeWriter led to the official formation of Not Impossible, a community of about two dozen innovators — Ph.D.s, engineers, physical therapists, designers and computer programmers — from around the world who drop by the Venice bungalow or videoconference in for brainstorming and hacking sessions.
They’re now tinkering away on the BrainWriter, a device that reads brain waves and eye movements to engage and disengage a computer mouse, and the Alex Mouse, a mouth-controlled joystick that enables quadriplegics to operate a PC. There’s also the Chad Cane, which uses ultrasound to warn people about obstacles in their surroundings.
Ebeling is the ideas guy, coming up with a concept but then leaning on others with more expertise to execute it.
“I like to call him the action figure. He rallies people together,” said Elliot Kotek, Not Impossible’s chief of content.
Ebeling sees the world simply: If there’s a problem, he wants to fix it. His parents were philanthropists in Phoenix, where he grew up, and he fondly recalls watching them open a shelter for abused women and a clinic that provided free health care to single working mothers.
“The best way to motivate me is to tell me no,” he said.
The plan is to eventually make Not Impossible’s products available for purchase online and in stores. Ebeling’s goal is to go a step further by putting the ability to build the gadgets into the hands of individuals who have no engineering know-how.
To prove that such devices are simple to make, Not Impossible is making its inventions open source: The software is available online, to anyone, free of charge.
People who want to create their own EyeWriter, for instance, can visit Not Impossible’s website to download the software and view a list of materials, many of them found in typical households. “Here’s what else you’ll need: 1x cheap sunglasses, 1x webcam, 1x floppy disk, 1x wire hanger, 1x wire cutters. … ”
The site then provides a four-step video tutorial on how to build the device. Total assembly time: as quick as one hour.
Ebeling took that teach-a-man-to-fish approach with him on his two-week Sudan trip in November, training Daniel, his doctor and eight refugees how to print and assemble prostheses using donated laptops and 3-D printers that Ebeling left behind.
“We didn’t want to show up and be the white savior,” Ebeling said. “You know — show up, do a food drop, take a couple pictures with some starving African kids and then … hopefully upgrade to business class with miles on the way back and sip Champagne.”
To help cover the cost of Not Impossible’s projects, Ebeling accepts donations and enlists corporate sponsors. Intel and Precipart sponsored Project Daniel by providing laptops, tablets and funding for the trip to Sudan.
Ebeling said that for people like Daniel living in war-torn parts of the world, the return of basic motor skills is invaluable.
“He got a part of himself back,” he said. “To me, this is technology for the sake of humanity. He’s feeding himself now; he’s a step closer to taking care of himself; he’s regaining his independence. Now he’s one step closer to self-sufficiency.”