Crowdfunding cash to buy touch-free phones for the paralyzed

As a winner of a Verizon contest, Sesame Enable plans to give away the money it raised on its IndieGogo page

A young paralyzed boy uses the Sesame Enable phone (Courtesy)
A young paralyzed boy uses the Sesame Enable phone (Courtesy)

To raise money for the development of his invention – a smartphone that lets individuals who cannot use their limbs due to the effects of conditions like ALS, paralysis, Parkinsons, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries to interact with their smart devices – Oded Ben-Dov turned to crowdfunding. He was aiming to raise $30,000 to finish his project, but potential donors can put their checkbooks away. “We really appreciate the public support, but now that our Sesame Enable device has been chosen by Verizon as a winner in its Powerful Voices contest, we are okay for money.”

On second thought, said Ben-Dov, don’t put the checkbook away. “Because of the size of our windfall – we are set to take a prize of at least $250,000, and are in the running for the million dollar Answers prize to be given out in January – we decided to take the money we got on our IndieGogo crowdfunding page and use it to pay for phones.” This means that the full $30,000 of IndieGogo funds Sesame Enable plans to raise (the project stands at about $25,000, with 19 days left in the campaign) will be used to purchase the Google Nexus phones that are the basis of the Sesame Enable system. The devices will be sent out to kids whose families can’t afford to buy Sesame Enabled phones.

The devices will be loaded with the unique Android operating system developed by Ben-Dov and his team, designed to help out ALS sufferers, quadriplegics, and others who are unable to use their limbs. With Sesame Enable installed, users can interact with their devices using slight head movements, and even voice commands, and use their devices to make calls, use the Internet, check email, interact with apps, or change the playlist on their device like anyone else.

That impressed the judges at Verizon, the giant US telecom firm, which, with its Powerful Answers contest, “aims to give companies, entrepreneurs and individuals an opportunity to generate innovative ideas that address some of the world’s biggest challenges,” the company said. Sesame Enable certainly fits that model. “Sesame Enable has developed touch-free smartphone and tablet technology designed to serve children (and adults) for whom touch is irrelevant,” Verizon said in its award announcement. “According to Sesame Enable, of the 5.6 million paralyzed people in the U.S., 150,000 are children who cannot move their hands. The technology integrates with games and applications and allows those children access to educational opportunities that were previously inaccessible to them.”

The device’s voice commands are used to open up applications, make calls, etc. For apps that usually require touch for interaction, the system uses head gestures, with users moving their head in various directions (up and down or left and right for navigation, a slight nod forward for selection, etc.), “Our slogan is ‘touch is overrated,’ and with our device, touch is not even necessary,” said Ben-Dov. “For those who don’t have use of their limbs, this is so far the only solution that lets them use a standard smartphone, with all that means today.”

Oded Ben-Dov (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Oded Ben-Dov (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The fact that the Sesame Enable solution is software-based is key to its abilities, said Ben-Dov. While there are are other enabling technologies that allow the severely disabled to use smartphones, they are either hardware-based and very expensive (in the many thousands of dollars), or limited in scope, able to control only one or two apps. By hacking the smartphone’s operating system, Ben-Dov can provide touch and gesture services throughout the device – for a lot less money that other solutions. “For the phone, technology, training, and stand for the device (it will need to be mounted on a pole opposite the user’s head), we expect to charge about $1,000,” said Ben-Dov.

As a finalist, Sesame Enable is guaranteed a minimum prize, as are the other 11 companies that have been named finalists as well. The only question is, how much of a prize. “The top winners- last year there were two – get a million dollars, and the runners up get sums below that, from $850,000 down to $250,000,” Ben-Dov said. A total of $10 million will be given away in the contest.

He feels donating the IndieGogo funds to buy phones that he plans to give away is the right thing to do. “I know this is going to sound funny, but for me it really isn’t about the money,” he said. “I can’t describe to you the pleasure I get when I pack up a phone to send out to someone, and being able to give them away is a real trip.”

In the workaday world – where he has to pay programmers, the rent, and investors – giving away the phones isn’t a sustainable business model. But with the little “extra” the company now has thanks to crowdfunding and Verizon it’s possible to “pay it forward. There are so many kids who are left out of life because they can’t play games or surf with their friends, and can’t watch YouTube videos and listen to music. There kids are isolated enough as it is – and I can’t think of a better purpose for the IndieGogo funds than buying devices for the ones whose families can’t afford to buy one.”

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