At Limbitless, AI makes everyone a visual storyteller
All images courtesy of Limbitless.
The year is 2015. Seven-year-old Alex is led down a mysterious hallway looking dapper in a short-sleeve black shirt and red bow tie. A fan of superheroes and riding his bike, Alex was also born with a partially developed right arm and is about to get help from the world’s foremost bionics expert: Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.
Iron Man might be a fictional character, but Alex’s bionic arm is 100 percent real, as is Limbitless, a non-profit organization based at the University of Central Florida (UCF), that designed and built it. More than 2.7 million people live with limb difference or limb loss in the United States alone, and it’s through emotive storytelling like Alex’s superhero adventure that Limbitless is getting the message out and providing many of those individuals with affordable bionics and prosthetics. As for Alex himself, he now plays on his high school football team and has built a reputation as a “heavy hitter”.
What started as a passion project in a small lab by founder Albert Manero has since grown into a team of 50 interns at UCF in Orlando Florida spanning over nine fields of expertise, from art design, to engineering, to video game development. Crucially for creative director Matt Dombrowski, every one of those interns is encouraged to nurture their creativity and play a part in Limbitless’ storytelling.
That’s where Adobe comes in.
“A couple of years ago, we were busting at the seams with barely enough room to run our clinical trials,” recalls Dombrowski. “Adobe gave us a catalytic grant to assist in the construction of a larger research facility, and as if that wasn’t enough, they’ve since given every Limbitless UCF undergraduate student intern free access to Adobe Creative Cloud.”
Limbitless’ scientists and engineers use Adobe Express, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator to design their own research posters and creative infographics for events and symposiums. More impressively, they repeatedly win awards for their posters despite not being from practices that involve creative art.
“It’s not just about bionic arms for us. It’s about the stories behind the people who wear them,” says Dombrowski. “That’s why it’s important that every Limbitless intern has access to the tools they need to tell those stories in a compelling and human way.”
"It's not just about bionic arms for us. It's about the stories behind the people who wear them." - Matt Dombrowski, Limbitless
Superhero storytelling powered by AI
That spirit of openness also shapes Limbitless’ approach to emerging technologies like 3D design and generative AI. As an early adopter of 3D printing, Manero made the process of designing and manufacturing bionic limbs infinitely more affordable and scalable, which in turn made life-changing technologies accessible to more people than ever.
As for AI, Limbitless is applying the technology across its creative workflows to enhance and adapt content for different marketing channels. Dombrowski recounts how his team reformatted the aspect ratio of a landscape photo of him and a bionic child from a few years back to an Instagram-friendly vertical design, using the AI capabilities in Adobe Creative Cloud to reframe the image.
Dombrowski is particularly excited about the potential of generative AI (Gen AI). The Gen AI algorithms in Adobe Firefly can combine and translate data prompts and inputs from Limbitless’ interns into entirely new content that is both beautiful and emotive.
Consider Limbitless’ approach to creating digital flat lays of the arm sleeves. Where Dombrowski would previously visit crafts stores and purchase various props to create the flat lays for use in content development, his team can now create multiple flat lays for a single prosthetic with nothing more than a photo of the arm and the right prompts entered into Adobe Firefly.
With Adobe Firefly, Limbitless can produce multiple flat lays for a single prosthetic using no more than a photo and some creative prompts.
“When it comes to digital content creation, energy is often dedicated to the HOW. How are we going to develop this asset? How are we going to adapt it to different formats? How are we going to create unique colour combinations to tell our story,” says Dombrowski. “Gen AI takes the how out of the equation so we can focus on WHY we’re telling our story, which is what really matters.”
Positive thinking drives positive outcomes
As a non-profit that brings so much positivity to the world, Limbitless has a unique perspective on the value that AI can bring to society. And while Dombrowski agrees there are valid concerns around how people will use AI, from bias to plagiarism, he teaches his students to approach the technology with an open and positive mindset.
“Disruptive technologies like AI make people uncomfortable, and the kneejerk response is to tell young people all the reasons they CAN’T use it first. But anyone with kids knows that won’t work,” says Dombrowski.
That mission is aided by Adobe’s ethical approach to developing Firefly. That includes rigorous AI algorithms, continuous testing to avoid unconscious bias and stereotypes, and impact assessments to ensure all AI innovation is grounded in ethical practices and delivers responsible outcomes.
Limbitless teaches its students to approach AI with an open and positive mindset.
“At Limbitless, we favor open discussions, encouraging students to form their own ethical questions and come to us for guidance. Firefly’s responsible approach to AI is a great alignment to these discussions,” Dombrowski adds.
What’s more, Dombrowski makes a case that creative thinkers have always used new tools and sources of inspiration to elevate their work. And that when it comes to content creation, the job of a creative is as much to streamline the storytelling process as it is to tell the story itself.
Leading by example, he and his students are exploring how Adobe Firefly might transform the way Limbitless creates and customizes bionic arms for all types of users. For instance, Limbitless has always invited their “bionic kids” to pick the color scheme and look of their arms and believes AI can help bring their story to life in an even more personalized way.
“Imagine a six-year-old who tells you a fantastic story about their limb difference, but in the extremely imaginative way that only a six-year-old can. Rather than asking our designers to interpret what they think the story means and convey their excitement, what if we fed it into the Firefly prompt?” asks Dombrowski.
“The output might make us rethink our artistic approach, inspire the creation of a new prosthetic training video game, or even rethink the way we approach arm design altogether. The possibilities are endless and incredibly exciting,” he adds.
Breaking barriers for non-profits
One of the biggest challenges for any organization, especially ones that develop technical products, is to tell their story in a way that resonates with the non-technical world. For Dombrowski, one of the beauties of Gen AI is that it breaks down these barriers. It allows artists, engineers, and scientists alike to feed their knowledge into a common platform and create something that combines their unique expertise and perspectives.
“With Firefly, even non-traditional artists can contribute to creative conversations. That’s incredibly valuable for an organization like ours that creates something both highly technical and highly emotive,” says Dombrowski.
On the topic of breaking barriers, Dombrowski believes AI will be a great equalizer for non-profits, which have traditionally lacked the time and resources to focus on content and marketing on top of their core operations. Again, Limbitless is leading by example, showcasing the transformative power of AI to elevate its creative practices.
“The beauty of generative AI is that it breaks the barriers between your imagination and your output. Anything we can ideate, we can feed into Firefly and bring to life, often in surprising ways” says Dombrowski. “That level of creative power is invaluable for non-profits that need every possible advantage to extend their reach and impact.”
A marriage of science and empathy
Limbitless’ co-founders all come from an aerospace and engineering background. But sharing the organization’s story with the rest of the world was another matter. It was actually Manero’s wife, a professional photographer, who further pressed Limbitless to bring in artists to bridge the gap.
Enter Dombrowski, who is also an associate professor of Emerging Media in the School of Visual Arts and Design at the University of Central Florida and has made visual storytelling a core value at Limbitless since joining the organization. Every one of his students, be they designers, researchers, or game developers, is encouraged to flex their creative muscles.
They are also empowered to nurture that instinct with Adobe technology. For instance, Limbitless’ social media and advocacy team uses Adobe Express to create stunning imagery, videos, logos and more. Meanwhile, its paint team uses Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Fresco for digital drawing and editing. One of Dombrowski’s students even used Adobe Substance Painter to mock-up new bionic arm designs in 3D.
“Adobe is the empathetic strand that ties our operation together,” says Dombrowski. “For example, we do a lot of work with the K-12 student community, and my team uses Creative Cloud to develop promotional content for many of our STEAM events.”
Diving deeper to drive more change
Limbitless has made a tremendous impact on people with limb difference, from young children like Alex to soon to include adults. And this is only the beginning of its journey.
The organization is now exploring the psychological aspects of wearing bionics to understand how they affect people’s well-being inside and out. “Getting a new prosthetic arm isn’t just a physical act, it involves mindfulness and psychology,” says Dombrowski. “Our goal is for the technologies we develop and the stories we tell to speak to that entire holistic experience.”
“We’ve got big ambitions and it’s inspiring to see the traction we’ve gained, but we never lose sight of our true goal, which is to empower others through creativity and get as many arms out into the world as possible,” says Dombrowski. “With Adobe’s support, we’re on track to make that happen.”
And to discover the power of generative AI to unlock your organization’s creativity, read more about Adobe Firefly.