“Touch is Overrated” — Sesame Enable

Title: Smartphone-Ingenious Product. Image of a man looking at the screen of a smartphone mounted on a bracket.
There’s a curious message on Sesame Enable’s website: “Touch is overrated.” But it begins to make sense when you learn that users can activate the company’s cellphones with a turn of the head, creating new possibilities for people with disabilities. Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan of ABILITY Magazine recently caught up with Oded Ben Dov, co-founder of the Israeli-based Sesame, about how he and partner, Giora Livne, conceived their forward-thinking technology.

Chet Cooper: How did you come up with the idea for this phone?

Oded Ben Dov: My background is in gesture technology and computer vision, where the computer understands what the camera is seeing. Then I demonstrated a touchfree game on television, where you controlled it by using hand gestures. Giora Livne, who is paralyzed from the neck down, saw the show and called me up the next day to ask if we could use the same technology to make a smartphone accessible for people like him.

Cooper: Had you thought of creating anything in the area of accessibility before Giora called?

Ben Dov: I hadn’t. I didn’t have a disability, but I was very glad to partner with him and address the challenges of people who can’t move their hands, but can use their head.

Lia Martirosyan: Tell us about the game you demonstrated, which moved him to call.

Ben Dov: There was a character that would pop up in one of four windows on an iPhone, and you could use your head to control a cursor or a hand to catch that character. It kept popping up, and you’d chase it around the screen using your head movements. Most companies in gesture technology create entertainment and games. The most known example is Microsoft’s Kinect.

Cooper: I don’t play games on my devices, so I didn’t know that was a trend . I know there’s head gestures in other areas, like in biofeedback, where you think and move whatever is on the screen. Have you tried going into that area?

Ben Dov: We definitely mapped out alternative solutions and technologies. The brain wave solutions are very primitive. The research is just getting started. I think they’re still far from consumer-ready products. There are other solutions that use special cameras to track your head or eye movement, and let you control a computer through that interface.

Cooper: I would think that there are other, similar products out there; how is Sesame different?

Boy in wheeelchair smiles as he uses a smartphone by moving only his head
Ben Dov: We’re different in that we went after smartphones. There was one solution that was available for Windows tablets, but that’s still not a native mobile platform like the Android or the Mac IOS. Unfortunately, Microsoft is still behind in that way. So going after an Android smartphone in the Android ecosystem is something really unique to Sesame. Beyond that, we’re using the standard built-in cameras you can find in any smartphone. It’s the equivalent of a simple web camera that’s connected to a computer. It doesn’t require special hardware like our competitors’ products, and that brings with it several benefits. We can price it much more affordably, and the solution is more elegant.

Martirosyan: Elegant?

Ben Dov: You don’t need extra hardware or extra cables. We’ve received feedback from users that having a phone that looks just like everyone else’s is a good thing. They don’t want to stand out with their accessibility device. And you wouldn’t know that Sesame was a special accessible phone just from looking at it. It’s a standard smartphone with our software installed.

Cooper: What phone do you use?

Ben Dov: We started off with Google’s Nexus 5, but it’s being discontinued, so we’re now searching for the next version.

Cooper: Your product is not an app, right? It’s a platform built on a smartphone.

Ben Dov: That’s right. We’re looking to make it into a downloadable app, but currently it’s a platform that needs special installation. We’re talking to carriers and phone manufacturers to have the technology available on their devices.

Rear view of boy using Sesame Enabled Smartphone on a stand affixed to his wheelchair.

Cooper: I know the prices might change going forward, but at the moment what’s the cost for someone to get one of your phones?

Ben Dov: Currently they’re going for $700, and you get the smartphone pre-installed with our touch-free interface.

Martirosyan: Tell us more about Giora’s input.

Ben Dov: We founded Sesame together. I came to the company with the technical know-how, and he came, obviously, with a need. We began with founders’ money, some of which was his insurance money from the accident.

Cooper: What is his background?

Ben Dov: Giora is what’s called a high-current engineer, which means he deals with environments such as power plants and power grids, where the current is huge. He’s actually built power plants. He was released from the Navy where he was a ship commander. We both have the same alma mater; we both graduated from the Technion. He lives in my hometown, a street away from my parents, which is quite serendipitous. (laughs)

Martirosyan: Small world!

Ben Dov: Yeah, in Israel you get that a lot. It’s a small country.

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Cooper: Are you both doing this full-time?

Ben Dov: Yes, this is full time and has been for over two years now. When pursuing a start-up, which you can’t really do part time. It requires commitment, perseverance, and one-and-a-half—if not two times—your available resources.

Cooper: The old joke is that when you’re an entrepreneur, you only have to work half a day: 12 hours.

Ben Dov: (laughs) That’s right!

Martirosyan: So when were the first phones shipped?

Ben Dov: We had several beta versions with testers, and we’ve gotten great feedback. But the official launch was in May. We also donated some phones to people in need. Since we won a big award from Verizon, we decided to take the money coming in from the crowd-funding community, and put it towards free devices for people who haven’t had the option of using a smartphone. They’re now taking advantage of all the wonderful things it can do.

Cooper: Do you still have the financial capability to provide free phones? Is that campaign over?

Ben Dov: Most of our phones are purchased. We’re taking the names of people who want to wait for a free device. As we get contributions, we can give away more devices. We are working with state agencies and other organizations to subsidize this program, because people with disabilities usually have higher expenses and lower available income. We’re targeting many countries for this. The only program that’s currently in place is in the US, in Texas, where they’re subsidizing disability solutions. If you purchase a Sesame smartphone through them, you’ll get reimbursed $550.

Martirosyan: In Texas? That’s interesting.

Image-left: Rear view of man in wheelchair using Sesame Enabled phone attached to a bracket on his desk. Image right: Front view of man smiling at his desk as he uses Sesame enabled smartphone.

Ben Dov: When we reached out, they responded quickly, but very few states have a subsidy plan. We’re working with two more: one in Missouri and one in California, and we hope to see others pick up this model, especially given the ongoing push with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cooper: Do you know where the funding in Texas comes from? Is it oil revenue?

Ben Dov: I can send you a link to the program when our conversation is over.

Martirosyan: Great.

Cooper: Who says it’s gonna’ be over?

Ben Dov: Hey, it’s 9:30 p.m. in Israel, so it needs to be over some time! (laughter)

Cooper: Other than the US and Israel, are any other countries onboard?

Ben Dov: We are looking into markets in Europe. We’re currently more in touch with nonprofit organizations and assistive technology distributors. We’ll continue to branch out, but it’s a matter of prioritizing. There’s a limited amount of work we can do.

Cooper: And you’re also looking for a new phone manufacturer.

Ben Dov: Right, and searching for new offices. We’re expanding. There’s a lot going on.

Cooper: That’s all good.

Martirosyan: Tell us about your relationship with Beit Issie Shapiro.

Ben Dov: They take care of many children with disabilities. In English, it might be called day care. They hosted the first Israeli accelerator program for startups in special-needs scopes. Do you know what an accelerator is?

Cooper: It’s something that slows things down, or is it the opposite? (laughter)

Ben Dov: Right, it speeds things up. Accelerator is a common term in the start-up world. They’re programs that teach you all the things you need to know about market research, and how to build a business plan, etc., build your vision, how to market, etc. I think Issie Shapiro hosted the first accelerator in the world that was focused around special needs. It was called A3I; it stands for Accelerating Inclusion in Israel—the three I’s.

Cooper: Clever.

Ben Dov: We were a part of that accelerator. We’re well connected to the Beit Issie Shapiro people. Since then we’ve been scratching each other’s backs. When the accelerator program ended, we were happy to continue to promote their messages and to make presentations at their events, which gave us the opportunity to speak before interesting audiences. For example, we presented Sesame at the UN, something I never dreamed we’d do. That’s just one example of what this partnership has brought us.

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Cooper: We spoke at one of their recent conferences; that’s how we learned about you.

Ben Dov: Oh cool.

Martirosyan: How did you come up with the name, Sesame Enable?

Ben Dov: We debated about it for a long time. I even brought in a professional to help us choose a name.

Cooper: Did they work for Sesame Street?

Ben Dov: (laughs) Yeah! They get royalties every time “Sesame” is used. (laughter) So we were looking for names. We had some more standard names, and then Sesame came up, originating from the phrase, “Open, Sesame!” The story is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” There was this magic cave, and to enter it you had to say, “Open, Sesame!” When we ran the name by Giora, he really connected to it. I think it’s because it expressed that we were opening new worlds for our users. It turned into Sesame Enable because the register in Israel already had the name Sesame itself.

Cooper: It’s interesting that you’re having all these issues with the Arab world, and yet you got your name from an Arab story. Hopefully one day you could start working with some of the Arab countries. In Qatar, for example, they have Mada [Qatar Assistive Technology and eAccessibility Center]. Do you know about them?

Ben Dov: No.

Cooper: They’re a NGO. They get their funding from a small tax on cell-phone usage. Their government was pretty good in organizing that, so they’re well funded and sustainable. Within that small country, they work with people who have disabilities. They’re doing really good work. I think the majority of people who work in Mada have disabilities, so they already know the need. And also, they come with a background in technology. Politics sometimes get in the way, but they want to work with other people.

Ben Dov: I’d love to see that. I remember about a year ago, I noticed that we had a new follower from the Nation of Islam on Twitter. That to me was a small win, bridging gaps through technology.

Cooper: Families are families, and families care about their children. They often have common issues around disabilities. As a matter of fact, we’ve been to Israel and worked with some of the engineers and scientists who work hand-in-hand with their counterparts in Palestine, helping kids with cerebral palsy. The partnerships happen, but not enough.

Ben Dov: There’s a place near where I live that I go for hummus. The person there is Arabic, and he’s constantly asking me to let him distribute our solution in the Palestinian space. And we’ll get to that, but as I said earlier we need to prioritize. It’s a nice thought, though, connecting with people—particularly children—with disabilities.

Cooper: I think that’s percolating. We’ve been in a few different Arab Gulf states, and we go, typically, because of the children with disabilities. We’re always trying to advocate for more inclusion. We trust it will happen some day, whether it’s in our lifetime or not. Anything you’d like to add?

Ben Dov: We’re coming out with a tablet version soon.

Cooper: We’re not going to mention that. (laughter)

Cooper: Have you found a manufacturer for it?

Ben Dov: We’re looking to continue with the Nexus series. Giora has switched from a smartphone to a tablet and is loving it, so that was the assurance we needed. Giora has also installed a system that can be used through a computer or smartphone to control the lights, thermostats, TV, etc., from wherever he is in his home. Initially, we didn’t think our reach would extend so far beyond the virtual world.

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Martirosyan: That’s nice.

Cooper: Some of that technology’s been around, but it’s required lots of different devices to connect. HP did a program with us circa 1999. They helped us build a smart home for a person who is a quadriplegic. He used voice activation, but it was still in the primitive stages.

Ben Dov: Since we receive feedback from users, we issue updates monthly or bimonthly to make it better and answer their needs. We issue updates for the existing product, and we’re looking to offer the tablet and choose our next model to run off of and distribute that.

Cooper: It seems you could even explore the possibility of packaging your smartphone concept.

Ben Dov: We’re taking it one step at a time. We want to make sure the smartphone technology is solid and amazing and then reach out to the Internet of Things and connected machines. As we expand, we’ll be able to take on more challenges at a faster rate.

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