The problem with covid tests is that they are easy to get when you don’t need them and impossible to get when you need them. When the Omicron wave peaked, people stood in test lines for hours and store shelves were cleared of kits. The next wave may not be easier. Is this a job for a basement inventor? Not so long ago, Bo Gehring, an octogenarian with an almost full head of wispy gray hair and six titanium ribs, sat in the living room of his aire in the woods near Woodstock and discussed his attempted homemade solution: a wearable breathalyzer-style gadget he calls Sarsie.
“I was watching this two-minute video simulation of the airflow in a Chinese restaurant and I could see in a second what to do,” he said, over bowls of soup with his wife, Carol March, a painter. “The skills to do it were the ones I had because I worked on so many things.” He went through an abbreviated resume: college dropout (four times), coder, welder, artist, scientist, filmmaker, designer, defense contractor and decorated motorcycle racer. Some of his technical skills owe to a stint in computer animation. In the 1970s, he found work on a McDonald’s commercial featuring a young Carl Weathers and a flying hamburger that Gehring programmed using Microsoft. BASIC. “At that time, Microsoft was two guys in an office in Albuquerque, Bill Gates and Paul Allen,” he said. “When I had a problem, I would call and talk to one of them.”
Gehring’s 3D images caught the attention of Steven Spielberg. “He calls one day and he’s obsessed with using our CGI to do a landing sequence in the movie he was making,” he said. It turned out to be “close encounters of the third kind”. Later, Gehring helped “pilot” the Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek” and invented a 3-D sound system for the Air Force that allowed pilots to hear an oncoming missile.
After lunch, Gehring moved to the basement. He unearthed a blurry photo of himself on a racing bike, leaning forward. In his twenties, he says, he came up with the idea of the modern motorcycle disc brake, which helped him slow down before cornering. (He claimed a third-place finish at the 1964 Grand Prix at Daytona.) That didn’t make him rich, thanks to an overworked patent attorney.
Starting over after a divorce, broke, he got a job as a welder at an upstate foundry. When his employer found out he knew computers, he started working with Jeff Koons (“a great guy with a great eye”) and other well-known artists, turning ideas into 3D computer models. Gehring eventually set up a studio in a disused high school in Beacon. Among other things, he figured out how to mount cameras on a track above a flatbed milling machine to make life-size full-body portraits. When he was seventy-one, one of them won a prize from the National Portrait Gallery.
Gehring led the way in a guest bedroom that doubles as a studio. A prototype of the Sarsie was on a chest of drawers. Each of the machine’s components has its roots in Gehring’s past careers. His circuit board was built by an old motorcycle racing buddy. The unit’s blue plastic casing, which is about the size of a deck of playing cards, is a design he programmed for a 3D printer. Part of Sarsie’s code comes from software he created to detect melanoma. (“I got the idea when I was doing portraits of people with Smithsonian-style tattoos,” he said. “One of the guys had these nasty red bumps on his back, and he I happened to have an appointment with my dermatologist.” ) The name of the gadget derives from “SARS“, for respiratory disease, with a “-that is” because, he said, “I thought it was cute.”
He brandished the machine. “It’s very simple,” he said. He inserted a straw (“the bubble tea ones work perfectly”), pressed an oversized yellow button in the middle of the device, and blew. Within seconds, a light on top turned green. “Which shows that I am negative!” he said. He continued: “All covid the tests on the market today work on chemistry. It is a very old technology. My device works on physics. A Sarsie sensor instantly detects the presence – or absence – of the lipids that surround all respiratory viruses. (He is now working on differentiating the results for covid other contagions.) He visited an emergency physician in Albany to test the device, and so far the results are promising. Two patents are pending. With luck, he hopes, a bigger company could buy the design. “Like the one who makes smoke detectors,” he said.
“It’s my whole life now,” Gehring continued. “If I succeed, it will be the most important thing I have ever done.” ♦