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Saturday, September 5, 2015

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Engineer invents voice-controlled computer

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Grebler with his wife, Inna Tsinman

Leor Grebler was eight years old when he created his first invention. 

“I was making a new type of what I thought was a really genius type of compost,” said Grebler, an engineer living in Toronto.

“It was just a bunch of dirt I’d collected. It wasn’t anything really miraculous back then, but I always was drawn to inventing something. I was always pursuing these strange subjects.”

As the son of an engineer, Grebler was fascinated by the idea of creating a new product from scratch. 

“I’ve watched these shows, like Wonderstruck [a children’s science show] on CBC. I’d visit the science museum and I was always thinking, ‘You can dream up something in your mind and you can make it afterwards.’ That idea I found really cool.”

Now, at 30, Grebler works with an engineering firm that creates teaching and research equipment for colleges and universities. He teamed up with two colleagues to design Ubi, a new type of voice-activated computer. Short for ubiquitous computer, Ubi is a portable device that plugs into the wall.

It’s always on, is able to answer questions by searching the Internet, can make phone calls and check emails. About two weeks ago, Grebler and his team put up the product on Kickstarter, a website where people can fund creative projects.

So far, the group has more than $120,000 in funding. Its original goal was $36,000.

“We’re really taken aback by how much support we’ve received,” said Grebler. “[Kickstarter] proved to us that we’re onto something that resonates with a lot of people. Probably a lot of geeks like myself.”

While Grebler currently lives in Toronto, he was born in Ottawa and was part of a small, tight knit Jewish community.

“I went to Yitzhak Rabin High School. There were 20 students in the entire school. It was in a basement of another school,” he said. “We were the small Jewish school in the dark basement. People would be weirded out by it, but it was a lot of fun.”

Grebler’s parents emigrated from Israel and became immersed in Ottawa’s Jewish community. 

“My mother taught at the Hebrew school there,” he said. “[The community] was much smaller. One kosher [restaurant] would open up and people would make such a big deal.

Now, of course, in Toronto, it’s no big deal at all.”

Grebler’s involvement in his community almost influenced his career choice.

“I kind of drifted all across the map in what I wanted to do. When I first got out of high school, I wanted to get into Israeli politics. I was so intrigued by Israel,” he said. 

But eventually, his affinity for science took over.

“My father was an engineer. He had an influence on me. I was always interested in sciences and technology. I wanted to invent things,” Grebler said.

After high school, he enrolled in Carleton University’s aerospace engineering program, expecting fascinating lectures about the inner workings of airplanes. 

“I thought I was going to learn to design airplanes. The first class, it was 300 students, and it was just calculus. It was really difficult to keep myself motivated in school,” he said.

Which is why Grebler turned to inventing. While at Carleton, the student heard about a grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary on it. Someone had preserved the sandwich and sold it on eBay for around $200,000.

“I was talking with my brother … we thought, what if someone could make their own Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich in the comfort of their own home,” he said.

“We ended up getting a stamp made. The idea was to press it into grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Grebler sold about seven sandwich makers on eBay. When he wasn’t pressing holy images into grilled cheese sandwiches, Grebler was involved with his school’s Hillel. 

“I saw I wasn’t going to become a hard core engineer, working through differential equations. That wasn’t really my big drive. I saw I was much more interested in business. I felt like being involved in the Jewish Student Association gave me a lot of experience to do some management,” he said.

Grebler enjoyed organizing events for the school’s Jewish community.

“It was a really amazing experience. It taught me it was up to you to step up and do something if you wanted something to happen. You couldn’t rely on just waiting for other people to do things,” he said.

It was through his work at Hillel that he met his wife, who he eventually followed to Toronto. Now working as an engineer, Grebler hopes Ubi, which is still in the protocol phase, will do more than make phone calls and check emails.

The computer can also help those with impaired vision or hearing since it includes an indicator light that changes based on events like getting an email or receiving stock market information.

“[The Jewish community] has always given me a sense of purpose. Everything that I work on has to have some type of benefit for others. It can’t just be solely a venture for profit,” he said.

“That’s something I really gained from my involvement in the Jewish Student Association and from my upbringing.”

For more information, visit www.kickstarter.com and search for Ubi.


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