Helping Henry | August 22, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 22, 2007

Helping Henry

Local teens use robotics to give disabled man part of his life back

by Rotem Ben-Shachar. Photos Norbert von der Groeben

On a bright afternoon in early August, Henry Evans' face lit up. In the bedroom of his Los Altos home, he demonstrated how — with only a slight movement of his head — he could do something he had not done for years: turn on his television.

Evans nodded his head up and down until a small laser attached to his glasses pointed at a "grey box," or receiver, with a small computer inside that detected the laser and turned on the TV. Within a second, the sounds from one of the latest Disney Channel shows blared from the set. Evans tilted his head back, laughing so hard his wife, Jane, had to help him unhook his feet from his wheelchair.

The device, known as the "laserfinger," has given Evans an independence that he has not had since 2002, when a stroke drastically changed the life of the then-healthy 40 year old.

The stroke did not alter his brain but left his body completely paralyzed and Evans unable to speak. Only after undergoing intensive therapy in Montana for two years was he able to perform simple tasks including sitting, clicking a mouse with his finger and moving his head.

"Your body is no longer part of 'you' in the normal sense, because you can't control it," Evans wrote in his blog, describing his life post-stroke.

Now he can turn on anything with an on/off switch, such as a fan or a light — and it is thanks to a group of Palo Alto High School students and their mentor, Chris Tacklind.

Thirty teens have been meeting for three hours a week for the past year, determined to improve Evans' quality of life through the use of robotics. Knowing their project has an immediate beneficiary has motivated the teens, many of whom are not straight-A students.

"It's a huge sense of accomplishment to see what a difference we are making in someone's life," said Daniel Shaffer, a soft-spoken, dark-haired incoming senior, one of the leaders of the group.

The laserfinger and its impact on Evans has brought national attention to the project, which is being hailed as an inspiration for teenage inventors.

Evans, meanwhile, is full of enthusiasm and excitement, whether he is using a new device or watching the teens work.

"I otherwise have no way to interact with my environment," Evans said through a computerized device in which he clicks on words on the screen, which the machine then pronounces. "The laserfinger is a great use of their knowledge."

Although no bigger than a rubber eraser, the device is helping Evans to take a sizable step back toward the life he nearly lost five years ago.

Aug. 29, 2002, started as a normal day. Evans woke up with a piercing headache, but he refused to let it prevent him from going to work and taking his four kids to school.

With his children in the car, he drove from their house on Page Mill Road, a mile and a half from Skyline Boulevard, down the winding road. But his children began to notice Evans was not acting like his normal self. As he drove, they noticed Evans' speech slurring, and the eldest son, Stephen, then in eighth grade, later told his mother, Jane, that he was scared his father might drive off the road.

Evans dropped the kids off safely and drove the curvy six miles back home. He told Jane all he wanted to do was sleep, but she insisted he go to the doctor. Evans felt so dizzy he could barely walk. He broke down crying, saying he could not walk to the car, even though only three months earlier he had had a physical, and his doctor told him he was completely healthy.

After only an hour at the emergency room, he could no longer move his right arm. Doctors thought he had meningitis. Soon after, Evans went into a week-long coma and stayed in intensive care for 22 days.

Doctors told Jane he would not survive.

Evans had a basilar artery dissection, the result of a birth defect. The inner lining of an artery in Evans' brain had torn loose and blocked blood flow, preventing oxygen from reaching the brain stem. When he woke up, he was a mute quadriplegic who could not even move his tongue from side to side — yet he was completely lucid.

Jane said she knew that he was fine inside when she saw him looking at a sheet of music and following the notes.

"It was a 100 percent feeling. I was sure his mind was not altered, no matter what the doctors said," she said.

Tacklind, a former co-worker of Evans, remembers the first time he visited his friend after his stroke.

"I was blown away by what he had to deal with, sitting in a chair, barely able to do anything on his own. He had to constantly rely on his wife, who is over a foot shorter than him," Tacklind said.

Evans had been the CFO of LifeChart, a medical device company; Tacklind was the CTO.

A professional inventor, Tacklind thought of constructing a device that could allow Evans to do simple tasks by moving his head. Tacklind had been mentoring the robotics team at Palo Alto High School for several years and thought making the device would be a great project for them.

In the spring of 2006, a group of 30 students began working on the device.

"It seemed like a very worthwhile project, so I was excited to get involved," said Mike Tramiel, an incoming senior and robotics enthusiast.

Tacklind suggested they make a remote control that Evans could operate by moving his head. After brainstorming, they decided to make a laser device because they thought it would be the easiest to execute successfully.

Constructing the technology, however, would require skills that many of the teens did not have — computer programming, soldering and knowledge of circuit boards. But that did not deter the group. Individuals taught themselves what was needed and then showed the rest of the group. Team members Chris Yarp and Blake Tacklind learned how to program using assembly language through a book.

"Some students are struggling academically," Tacklind said. "But this is something they do because they are interested in it."

The students split up the work based on each person's interest and knowledge, but they end up all working on whatever is needed, Shaffer said.

For the past year, the teens have met at the TechShop in Menlo Park, where Tacklind works, every Saturday afternoon, making new prototypes and perfecting old ones.

"We also work at home, designing circuits and whatever else is needed," Shaffer said.

The students have gone through a lot of trial and error, with the devices sometimes not working or not functioning efficiently.

"We think of an idea, we try it, it usually fails, then after about the fifth time it works," Guy Davidson, an incoming senior, said, laughing.

The team had several opportunities to present the laserfinger at conventions as they developed the technology.

Before each showcase, the team put in extra hours to prepare. The day before the Cool Products Expo at Stanford University, they spent 12 hours in the lab perfecting their prototype.

"We work hard, but at the end of the day, it's fun," Davidson said.

The students hope to start a lecture series this upcoming school year in which every week a different teen would teach the group about a type of program or more advanced calculus or physics, to aid them in their projects.

"We want to learn as much as we can," Shaffer said.

One key event in the project's development came last October, when the teens received a $10,000 national grant called the InvenTeams grant. The InvenTeams program is an initiative of the Lemelson-MIT Program to encourage inventiveness among high school students. Teams of high school students, teachers and mentors identify a problem, research it, and then develop a prototype.

"We hope to encourage inventor culture in schools," Program Executive Josh Schuller said.

The Paly team was one of 20 teams selected, out of about 100 that entered, and the only team chosen from California. The proposals were judged by a panel of MIT professors, alumni and entrepreneurs based on inventiveness and creativity, student involvement, project organization and budget, Schuller said. The Paly team received the program's largest grant.

"They're a team that took their project to the next level. There's nothing esoteric about it," said Matt Paine of the Lemelson-MIT Program Communications Team.

With the funding help, the team was able to buy the materials needed to showcase their device with other InvenTeams at MIT.

In June, Tacklind and nine students — and Evans — flew to MIT to showcase their device. Both Henry and Jane were excited about the trip.

"Because Henry's mind is completely fine, I was excited for him to go to Boston and teach people about the handicapped world," Jane said.

Between seeing other groups' creations and attending lectures, and even squeezing in some time to play Frisbee, the students presented the laserfinger while Evans demonstrated how to use it.

"The response we received was amazing. It made all the difference for people to see our project in action, and that was thanks to Henry," Shaffer said.

Tramiel could not agree more.

"It made it that much more rewarding to have Henry there and show the person we actually helped," he said.

Evans was so busy demonstrating the device, he barely had time to go to the bathroom, he said with the help of his wife.

"He was the star of the event," Jane said.

So great was Evans' impact at MIT, the organizers named an award after him. The Inspiration for Innovation Award will be given every year at the InvenTeams showcase in the Evans family's name.

The positive feedback the students received at MIT has further motivated them to continue perfecting the laserfinger and also add new features.

Most recently, Evans requested a way to interact with his half-Labrador/half-golden retriever, Amber, by whom he felt ignored, Jane said.

"Not being able to make my presence felt is another big source of frustration," Evans wrote in his blog.

So the team devised a tennis-ball launcher and a pet-treat dispenser so Evans can train and play with Amber.

The teens are also now working on an iPod controller; a more complex remote control for Evans so he can change the channels and volume on his TV; and improving the receiver's detection of the laser.

InvenTeam's Schuller credits the project's success to the students and Tacklind's enthusiasm.

"The passion of the students is very evident, as is Chris'. The amount of energy they bring is key," he said.

Now that the academic year is finished, the InvenTeams staff still hopes to continue working with the Paly team. The program strives to maintain relationships with the students, teachers and schools. Lemelson-MIT gives additional grants to the teams of up to $2,000, as well as teacher stipends. Additionally, the program allows the teams access to different companies, resources at MIT and other forms of networking.

"We try to connect them with role models," Schuller said. "If you get kids starting young, they could solve some of the world's most pressing problems. The Palo Alto team is a great symbol of that."

The Paly teens are now in the process of forming a nonprofit organization Evans likes to call Robotics for Humanity, in order for more people to benefit from the product.

Ingrid Johanns, who worked with Tacklind and Evans at LifeChart, agreed to help run the nonprofit at the end of July. Using her product-management background, she will help the group turn the device into a product that people besides Evans can use.

"This device is not just for people that are immobilized but even people in recovery," Tacklind said.

Johanns plans to help the group prioritize which new features to focus on, raise funds and learn how to market the product.

"I've always been involved in socially conscious businesses, so this seemed like a great fit," Johanns said.

The opportunity to help the community and educate students drew her to the project.

"It excites me to see students educating themselves about science, engineering and design. They have a real motivation to build something to help someone's life," she said. "I want to include them in product management, so they can see how to turn the device into an actual product in a box."

Eventually, they hope the nonprofit will include students from other high schools who are solving other problems for people with disabilities. They are working on a Web site,, and are looking for donations to support the current and future work.

The group recently met with Congresswomen Anna Eshoo's technical assistant, Dennis Agatep, to discuss ideas for possible funding and to expand the product to reach other people besides Evans. He was enthusiastic about the project and is contacting the VA Hospital to possibly collaborate with the students, Johanns said.

Regardless of what the future holds for the group, their passion and excitement do not appear to be fading anytime soon. Both were evident earlier this month when the teens spent their Saturday afternoon at Evans' house setting up more grey boxes and making sure the tennis-ball launcher worked correctly.

"We're learning a lot and doing something important, so we stick with it," Shaffer said.

As the teens continue to work on their technology to help Evans, his range of motion, slowly, is also improving.

"He now can say short sentences. They are very slurred, but they are sentences," Jane said.

Henry Evans' blog can be read at

Editorial Intern Rotem Ben-Shachar can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Ken Nelson
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 23, 2007 at 11:13 am

What a great story about how kids can learn the practical uses of technology beyond videogames, and significantly help improve someone's life! Now if more teams of kids focused on tackling the development of tools for use by disabled people rather than use their energy on making battlebots, a lot more people's lives could be positively affected, including the kids, and how much nore valuable the results would be. More power to all those involved, and keep up the good work.

Like this comment
Posted by Cialis
a resident of Fairmeadow School
on Mar 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm

uS5GAI Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

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