New Innovations in Assistive Technology
with Joe Babarsky of Not Impossible Labs
People living with disabilities face unique challenges as they navigate their daily routine. But new innovations in assistive technology are empowering individuals to overcome these challenges, and enabling them to experience an improved quality of life.
Joe Babarsky, Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Not Impossible Labs, delves into exciting advances in assistive technology and how these advances are closing the inclusion gap for people with disabilities.
Oct 14, 2020
Anderson: Everyday tasks can pose challenges for people with disabilities, but innovations in assistive technology are meeting those challenges head on and improving quality of life in many different ways. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Tools available to assist those with disabilities continue to get smarter and more intuitive every day. And joining me to talk about innovation in assistive technology is Joe Babarsky. He is the director of strategy and partnerships for Not Impossible Labs. And, Joe, thanks for being here.
Babarsky: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: So this technology is really about meeting unmet needs and helping people to experience things that they may have never experienced before or reintroducing people to an experience that they once had and lost. How life-changing is something like this?
Babarsky: For me personally, it's life-changing to collaborate with individuals who have sort of the bravery and vision to offer up their lived experience to help us at Not Impossible Labs build a prototype solution that addresses their needs. For those individuals, it really is about the story of their lives, the self-efficacy that they can embrace in terms of what they can accomplish. And when you open one door and make one impossibility possible, suddenly there are dozens of other doors that beg the question, "Well, if I can do this, what could I do next?"
Anderson: And I want to get to the specific technology that comes out of what these Absurdity Projects are. That's what you guys call them at Not Impossible Labs. And I know that the founder says that they're created by a crazy group of mad-scientist hackers and activists. And this is all about taking something that might be impossible and making it possible. And one great example of that is Music: Not Impossible. And that's something that allows deaf people to actually fully enjoy music. How did your team come up with this idea?
Babarsky: Music: Not Impossible, was actually born out of a completely unrelated moment, where our founder had a friend who had hit his head and temporarily lost his sense of smell. And just that just kind of gave birth to the idea -- "Well, okay, you don't really smell with your nose. You smell with your brain. In that case, how could we think about music differently?" And we had some of these mad scientists, amazing advocates from the deaf community, and people who work on interpreting music into sign language. And I think that it's important for us to really think about, a deaf person has their own experience of music, and sometimes that is ignored. It's underappreciated, what music can mean to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. And so this drove us to create a crazy prototype with wires sticking everywhere that was essentially a wearable that translated and interpreted music into vibration so that it could be experienced through the sense of touch. And because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, your brain will actually learn to hear that as sound. So we have spent years developing and improving on a prototype that can take the nuances of a sonic experience and give you a very detailed tactile experience on your body so that you're hearing through your sense of touch.
Anderson: And what was the reaction from the deaf users when they got to actually experience this technology?
Babarsky: That reaction from the first people to experience Music: Not Impossible -- And we had done feedback sessions and tested and tested, but actually having a concert, and we had it during the Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas. And there was this incredible experience where we had deaf concertgoers, tears streaming down their face, people saying, "I've never been to a concert before. I've never felt like this was for me." And I remember one moment in particular where a group of deaf audience members were all huddled around the stage during the setup when people were rehearsing and they were just -- There's rapt attention in their eyes. And I went up and through an interpreter asked them about what they were feeling. And they said, "There isn't even an interpreter signing this music for us. And it's the closest I've ever felt to music in my entire life."
Anderson: I want to quickly get to another project. Not Impossible Labs started with the Eyewriter. Give us a quick overview of what that does.
Babarsky: The Eyewriter is a eye-tracking technology that was created truly on the cheap. We went to the Venice boardwalk, got a pair of sunglasses, got a webcam, and hacked together some software solutions. And this was all inspired by Tony "Tempt" Quan, a graffiti artist, a street artist in Los Angeles. Really one of the kind of grandfathers, godfathers of the street art movement who was locked in as the result of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and unable to move, and so that struck my founder, Mick Ebeling, as just -- That was sort of the origin of the idea of an Absurdity. We have all of this technology. We're in Los Angeles, where we're using convenience technology and technology to create entertainment. Why can't we create something that allows -- Initially really the intention was to allow Tony to communicate with his family again, to be able to communicate with his brother and his father because they at the time were using a piece of paper they would point to and a system of blinking to spell everything out letter by letter. So in sort of typical Not Impossible fashion, we said, "Well, we can build something that is more accessible in terms of being affordable that can allow you to communicate." And then, as is our way, we said, "Well, if we can do that, why can't we make something that can help you create art again?" And so the Eyewriters and eye-tracking technology that Tony was able to use to draw with the movement of his eyes and draw for the first time in seven years.
Anderson: It's incredible. And you guys really have way too many projects for us to talk about right now. You've got Project Bishop that allows blind skateboarders to actually skate. You've got Project Memory that assists those with traumatic brain injury. But talk about the larger scale here. What happens when a whole group of people is given access to something that they never had before and ability that they never had before? What does that mean?
Babarsky: I think that one of the most important sort of imperatives of our time is to embrace inclusive innovation and really find ways to build products, solutions, services so that they can be accessed by a much broader swath of our population. Really when it comes down to it, technology is so often created for a typical user, and a typical user can be somewhat narrow. And not just when we're talking about people with a disability, as we might consider -- members of the deaf community or someone who's blind. Low vision and being hard of hearing is something that most of us might experience if we're lucky enough to age in place. And so, really, I think the mission of Not Impossible really goes back to our "help one, help many" model. We think about creating solutions focused on the needs of one individual or one family or one community. And doing that means that we aren't hampered by this typical user point of view, and how do we create these sort of most narrow, easiest-to-create thing that scales? We include someone who might be somewhat of a fringe case or might have accessibility and assistive technology needs out of the gate. And it is really proven that technology and services, if they are built that way from the start, it provides a better experience for everyone.
Anderson: So if people want to find out more about what your team does, where can they go?
Babarsky: We are at notimpossible.com. We create beautiful pieces of film storytelling about all of our projects. You can watch them there. You can also follow us at Not Impossible across social media.
Anderson: Joe Babarsky, Not Impossible Labs, thank you for being here.
Babarsky: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to join us at comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.