Software & Web Development

Crowdsourcing Revisited: Say "Open Sesame" to "locked-in" conditions

In late 2014, we covered Sesame Enable as part of our Crowdfunding Innovation series. The Tel Aviv-based start-up wanted to create a truly hands-free smartphone to give people with “locked-in” conditions - for example ALS, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, or spinal cord injuries – a chance to embrace 21st century technology.

Instead of utilising any specialist (and expensive) hardware, the Sesame Phone is a Google Nexus with custom software. This allows the user to utilise voice commands and the phone’s front-facing camera to register head gestures as input, offering a low cost option for technological independence. The custom skin means the user can use surf the web, send messages and play games all without needing to touch the phone.

The successful IndieGoGo campaign raised over $50,000, and things have been going well for the company since. Sesame received $1 million through Verizon's Powerful Answers Award, was a winner at the 2015 Genesis Generation Challenge, presented the concept at the UN, and is currently up for a SXSW Interactive Innovation Award.

The New Year saw Google teaming up with Beit Issie Shapiro – an Israeli advocacy group for people with disabilities and announce that it was to distribute 5000 Sesame Phones to anyone in Israel who needs one, free of charge.

We spoke to Sesame Enable CEO Oded Ben Dov about life post-IndieGoGo and making smartphones accessible to everyone.

How has the product changed since your campaign?
We've gone through many iterations based on user feedback, covering user experience, new features, better support and more.
A major change is that we developed a capability to run on any Android device, not just the pre-installed ones we had. This will soon be offered worldwide.

Did you get your rewards out to funders OK and were they happy with the product?
We got most of the rewards out OK, and people were happy. Two of the bigger rewards, which promised an iOS/Android game app, eventually had to be cancelled. We were too focused on the main project to steer off in that direction. All backers accepted this gracefully, as they backed us for the principle, not so much the perks. Only one funder asked for his money back, and he was very courteous about it.

Many campaigns, despite initial success, run into trouble further down the line and often don’t fulfil their promises – how did you avoid this pitfall?
So, as written above, one of the perks we couldn't fulfil and we were very open about it. We emailed all backers for that perk, explaining our heavy decision to drop the perk and focus on our main product. Of course a complete money back guarantee was offered.
As for all the rest, maintaining a good relationship with your backers helps when you run a little behind schedule or have some changes to make in the product.
As for the logistics, delivering the perks was a full time position for about a month or two.

Would you run another campaign in the future?
Not likely. We did not really raise a lot of money, taking into account the campaign costs. And it's a lot of hard, time-consuming work. It is great exposure and a chance to really get yourself out there, but you can probably invest those resources otherwise.

Can you explain what the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities program is and Sesame Enable’s involvement?
The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities program aims to leverage technology and innovation to create more access and opportunities for the one billion disabled people around the world, for whom the world is currently not built for. With its focus of tackling one issue on a global scale, Google approached Beit Issie Shapiro - Israel’s leading centre providing services for the disabled population - and asked them to identify an Israeli-developed Assistive Technology product that helps make the internet accessible. Beit Issie Shapiro then turned to us. We built a plan together to distribute the technology to every single person in Israel who stands to benefit from it, and train them in how to use the technology.
Google contributed $1 million to this project alone - part of it for the training and distribution of the technology (which Beit Issie Shapiro is handling) and part of it for the technology itself (provided by Sesame Enable). On our side it covered the costs of developing our controller, which makes Sesame work with any Android device, while the rest is for actually purchasing the devices themselves. Google assigned some internal developers to help us in case we got stuck with anything along the way.
We began distributing the technology in January and are continuing to do so. By the time we’re done, approximately 5,000 Israelis - young, old, Arab, Jewish - will have received our touch-free smartphone technology.

What was your reaction to the news that Google would be helping you get the Sesame Phone out to so many people for free?
It was amazing. It was one of those I-could-die-I’m-so-happy moments. This thing we developed in the garage, with our own hands, is going to all the people in our home country - for free! And this is not a toy or a gadget, it's a life changing technology for people who need it desperately.

What did the people at Google say when they realised you were using their technology to help those with disabilities?
They were actually very cautious not to make it appear as though they are promoting their technology. Their interest in the donation was completely detached from this being an Android technology.

Aside from the 5,000 devices Google are helping you donate, how many phones & tablets have you shipped, and how many would you like to have sold by the end of the year?
We've shipped over 100 devices, so these 5,000 are really a huge step for us. And we are seeing interest gaining worldwide, so we hope to deliver 5,000 more regardless of the Google initiative. Although any four-figure number beneath that would still be progress in the right direction.

Last time we spoke, you said you had plans to release an SDK and start looking to embed your technology within other phones – has there been any progress on this?
We're in talks with a well-known technology company regarding use of this SDK. Right now it is not offered publicly yet.

What role do you see Sesame technology playing in the Internet of Things?
When we set out to create Sesame, we envisioned making a smartphone accessible for people with motor disabilities. We did not and could not imagine the reach the technology would have through the Internet of Things, because controlling a smartphone independently today means also controlling the lights, thermostats, shades, TV's, sound systems, camera monitors, and so much more. As a matter of fact my co-founder, Giora Livne, installed a smart home system where he lives and indeed has control over these things.

What’s your view on Digital Assistants such as Siri, Cortana or even Facebook’s M and how they can help people with ALS, CP, SCI etc.?
We see Digital Assistants and Voice Control in general as an important part of the Touch-Free puzzle. Some things are easily achieved by voice - "Call my wife", "What's the weather forecast?", etc. However, the technology can't (inherently) do everything needed on a smartphone. You can't play most games by voice, and voice control doesn't go deep into the applications themselves. So we try to combine the best of both worlds: You turn on the phone initially by saying "Open Sesame". If you want to call your wife by voice, by all means do. We even recommend our users to use voice dictation capabilities for writing long messages. And once you need a finger on screen (Select a conversation within WhatsApp. Scroll to an interesting Facebook post. Pull the slingshot in Angry Birds), then Sesame's tracking technology completes the picture.

Future plans for the company?
[We want to] change hundreds of thousands of lives. We will open the product to more audiences, and it will offer more value to our users. Partnerships with big technology companies will be established and help us reach all that can benefit from our technology.


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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