14 Year Old Builds Communication Device for Brain-Injured Friend

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It is understandable if you get choked up (and find your faith in humanity restored) while watching this TEDx Talk by 14 year old Jacob Smilg. In it, Jacob recounts how he used his tech know-how and love for his friend Ethan to create a device for Ethan to more easily communicate after a freak accident and resulting brain injury.

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In the summer of 2013, while at summer camp, on a clear and cloudless day playing Frisbee in a field, Ethan Kadish was struck by a bolt of lightning. The jolt stopped his heart and the resulting brain injuries left him unable to function independently, making it impossible for him to speak, or even to breathe on his own.


When Jacob learned that Ethan did retain the ability to blink his eyes to answer yes and no questions, he had an “ah-ha” moment. Using a microcontroller in a 3D printed case, an LED display, and two big buttons mounted onto Ethan’s wheelchair headrest, Jacob created a simple Yes/No device that Ethan can use instead of blinking his eyes. This makes communication less ambiguous and allows him to communicate with more people. “With my device, Ethan can more easily communicate with a group and having real conversations makes him overjoyed,” says Jacob.


As Jacob points out in the video, one of the many beauties of a system like this is that it’s very cheap to put together, the parts are readily available, education and assistance are only a web search away, and ultimately, this kind of life-changing technology is now so simple that even a kid can dream up and execute a solution. OK, maybe not just any kid, but at least ones that are as smart, compassionate, and resourceful as Jacob Smilg.

If you want to follow Ethan’s story and progress, he and his family maintain a Team Ethan blog. Jacob Smilg has a blog on Facebook. I’m going to keep an eye on this inspiring young man. I have a feeling he’s just getting warmed up.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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