Sesame Touch-Free Smartphone Brings Mobile World to Mobility-Impaired

Sorin Hershko tests a touch free smartphone which can be controlled by head gestures. Hershko was paralyzed during an Israeli military operation to free a hijacked plane in the 70's. Basti Hansen

"Games are nice, but not really life-changing," says Oded Ben Dov, an Israeli entrepreneur who turned from making mobile phone games to creating a phone for people with spinal cord injuries, ALS, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other mobility impairments.

His invention is an Android device activated with the voice command "Open Sesame." The phone has a front-facing camera that searches for a face in the frame. Once it finds your face, you control a cursor by shifting your head up, down and sideways, your movements tracked by a proprietary algorithm. When you rest in one position for a couple of seconds, a navigation icon pops up and you can choose whether you want to click, swipe, see more options or exit by moving the cursor to hover over one of four circles that appear on the screen like a compass rose.

With the Sesame smartphone, those with mobility impairments can call, text, surf the Web, participate in social media and play games, just like anybody else, without buying any special equipment, says Ben Dov: "Our intention is to help them regain control, regain independence, privacy."

Ben Dov co-founded Sesame Enable with Giora Livne, who served as a naval commander in the Israeli Defense Forces and then worked as an electrical power engineer in the private sector before an accident left him a quadriplegic nearly a decade ago. Livne called Ben Dov—who specializes in computer vision—after the young coder appeared on television to demonstrate a game operated by gestures.

"I can't move my hands. I can't move my legs. Can you make me a phone I could use?" Ben Dov recalls his future partner saying.

Sesame Enable was named a winner of Verizon's Powerful Answers Award in December as the company was in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign to crowdsource funds for its first shipment of phones, in March, and tablets, due out in June.

The award will cover the development costs. (Verizon will announce at the end of January whether Sesame will receive a $250,000 or $1 million prize.) The company plans to use the nearly $34,000 it has already raised to donate some Sesame phones to those in need. The phones cost $700 to preorder on Indiegogo, and the retail price will run up to $1,000.

For the recipients, the phones can mean much more than a mindless 20 minutes with Angry Birds and Candy Crush. "We started realizing that through giving someone a smartphone, we're actually opening up so many more options—accessibility to the virtual space but also to physical space," says Ben Dov. "My partner Giora just ordered a smart home system," for example. Combined with the Sesame smartphone, it will allow Livne to control his television, thermostat, and lights.

When Livne first started using his touch-free phone, though, it wasn't being able to check his email or control of the television that he was most excited about. He just wanted to order flowers for his wife, without asking her to dial.

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of Verizon's Powerful Answers Award.