John Gluck’s eyes glistened with joy and amazement when a set of wooden shelves in front of him lit up in bright blue.
This is no ordinary shelf: It moves up and down and in and out so that the eight-year-old, who is in a wheelchair, can easily access its contents. The special system was conceived, designed and built at the TOM:DC Makeathon, a three-day marathon design event hosted in Reston by the Tel Aviv-based non-profit startup TOM.
The ‘T-O’ part of TOM, which launched in 2013, comes from “Tikkun Olam”, which is Hebrew for fixing the world. The ‘M’ stands for makers: people who take a do-it-yourself approach to inventing, designing and tinkering. TOM takes the maker movement one step further by focusing specifically on assistive technology to address unmet challenges for people with disabilities.
“We want to create extremely affordable solutions for neglected issues,” said Arnon Zamir, the founding director of TOM.
Zamir was referring to problems that have no market or government solution. It may be that the market is considered too fragmented --such as people with disabilities who have highly specific needs — to appeal to a single company. Or it may be that there is no way to bring the solution to the market.
This is where TOM comes in, said Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Insitute, a non-profit policy group that launched TOM in late 2013.
There is an “ocean of talent” and an “ocean of needs,” Grinstein explained. The idea is to bring the two oceans together, so that what results is “millions of people organized to solve millions of problems.
“It’s a new idea and the potential is huge,” Grinstein said.
The goal, Zamir said, is “to ship recipes, not cakes.” TOM wants to create a globally consicous maker community, and to facilitate that, all plans and prototypes created at TOM Makeathons are made free and available online for anyone anywhere to download, use and perhaps even tweak and improve.
At the TOM:DC Makeathon, held at Nova Labs, over 30 makers split up into several teams , and each team worked directly with what event organizers call “need knowers:” people living with disabilities who have an intimate understanding of the challenges they face and the needs that they need to address.
Max Painley, 21, and Noam Platt, 26, formed a team to address John’s mobility needs. John, who lives in Herndon, Va., was diagnosed with congenital muscular dystrophy when he was two-and-a-half, greatly limiting his range of mobility. Because he uses a wheelchair, he cannot reach much beyond his lap. This means that more often than not, he has to ask for help when he wants to reach for something.
“We’ll hear throughout the day, ‘Mom, could you get me my...’ and fill in the blank,” said the boy’s mother, Jennifer Gluck. “We thought it would be nice for John to be more independent, and not to have to wait for us to get him something.”
And so they came up with the idea of an accessible shelf: a system of shelves that would go up and down to the right height, and then slide out for John to reach into.
But neither Jennifer nor Charles Gluck, John’s parents, knew how to actually put a shelf like that together. TOM therefore matched these three need-knowers with Painley and Platt, who had the technical knowledge to try and bring the idea to fruition.
Painley is a senior at James Madison University studying engineering, with a minor in robotics, and Platt works as a healthcare designer in Lafitte, Louisiana. Together, they spent long hours on Saturday in Nova Lab’s woodworking shop, laboring hrough the night into Sunday to finally produce a working prototype of their accessible shelfing system.
Like any kind of experimentation, it was at times a hair-pullingly frustrating process of trial and error.
On Saturday afternoon, after working on the project Friday night and all of Saturday, they were “completely stalled,” Painley said.
They had originally thought of using a pulley system to move the shelfing unit up and down, and individual motors to slide each of the three shelves in and out. But that turned out to be too cumbersome. It just wasn’t working.
“We were basically one step forward and two steps back,” said Painley. All he could think of was how disappointed John would be, and how he and Platt would have let him down.
As Saturday stretched into midnight Sunday, the two suddenly had a breakthrough. Instead of an elaborate system of motors, someone suggested a much simpler cam mechanism: a machine element that transforms one input motion into another.
Essentially, the cam forces the opening of a hinge at a set height, Platt explained. The edge of the shelf is pushed out, and as it passes through the peak of the cam, the spring action of the hinge brings the shelf back in.
“To see his face when we turned on the lights — that’s just pure joy,” said Platt. The makeathon is about giving back, but “it’s also kind of selfish because it makes you feel so damn good,” he added.
Elsewhere at the Nova Labs makerspace, Mana Momen, 26, stood next to a toaster oven, baking a small bit of polymer clay onto the hand of a backscratcher.
Momen, from Ashburn, Va., is a graduate student at George Mason University studying human factors and applied cognition. She was part of a team working to build a prosthetic hand for Jordan Reeves, 10, from Columbia, Mo.
Jordan was born with a left arm that stops just above the elbow. For Jordan, there is a motion that we wouldn’t think twice about that she finds difficult: pulling paper towels from dispensers when her hand is wet.
So she thought: why not make a pocket-sized, collapsible prosthetic arm?
The team that took on this challenge really ran with it. They made a cuff that would wrap around Jordan’s arm, then worked with a GoPro mount so that they could screw on a modified selfie stick to the cuff.
The selfie stick would serve as Jordan forearm, and at the end of the selfie stick would go various contraptions to perform different tasks. They made a clipper that would help Jordan grab and pull paper towels, a backscrather to get those elusive itches, and even something to hold playing cards with.
“You feel good about what you’re doing…We’re all here for the same reason: you want to make an impact and we want to keep doing that,” said Jade Garrett, 33, a D.C. resident who was part of the prosthetic arm team.
As John marvelled at his new set of moveable shelves, he started thinking about all the things that he could put on them.
He might put his Kindle on one shelf, he said. Tissues might go on another shelf, “just in case.”
But the thing that he’s most exctied for about the shelves?
“My stash of candy that I’m going to put in it.”