By Brian T. Horowitz, Editor and Contributing Writer
When a former world champion of pro-BMX biking, Stephan Murray, was paralyzed in a tragic fall in June 2007, he didn’t give up on life or even computing.
With eye-tracking software, he can still enter data on a PC on his own.
“I can do all my emails, I can write, I can talk,” Murray said in a Tobii video. “My communication just opened up.”
A loss of motor skills won’t prevent a user from controlling a PC anymore, as people with paralysis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are using eye-tracking technology to operate PCs.
Companies that have developed these technologies include Samsung Electronics and Tobii Technology.
“It’s about changing lives and enabling people who would have been locked into their own bodies and couldn’t have the most basic communication to live a much more functional life,” according to Fredrik Ruben, president of Tobii Dynavox, the assistive technology division of Tobii.
Eyecan+ eye tracking ditches the glasses
Eyecan+ is the second version of an eye mouse that lets people compose and edit documents as well as browse the Web using eye movement. The product consists of a box that rests below the monitor and allows users to calibrate with a user’s eye.
“Eyecan+ is the result of a voluntary project initiated by our engineers and reflects their passion and commitment to engage more people in our community,” SiJeong Cho, vice president of community relations at Samsung Electronics, said in a statement.
Samsung will not commercialize Eyecan+, but the company will manufacture a quantity to donate to charity organizations to improve the lives of people with diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and locked-in syndrome (LIS).
“Both the technology and design of Eyecan+ will soon be made open source, and made accessible to companies and organizations that wish to commercialize the eye mouse,” Cho said.
An Eyecan user must be 60 centimeters to 70 centimeters away from a monitor to operate it. Users look at an item on the screen and can select it with a blink.
The application uses 18 commands that rely on eye movement and blinking to control a PC. Users select the command by looking at an icon and blinking one time. Eyecan software can be customized to include keystrokes such as “close program” and “print.”
Hyung-Jin Shin, a graduate student in computer science at Yonsei University in Seoul, is a quadriplegic who worked with Samsung on the second generation of Eyecan to make it easier to use. A previous version required glasses, but now the unit rests under a computer’s monitor.
Although it took Shin 20 minutes to write an email, he was still able to express his thoughts on the technology’s benefits.
“The eye mouse isn’t just an IT device, but arms and legs for a patient with advanced disease,” Shin wrote using Eyecan, according to The Verge. “I hope that this kind of research will be continued.”
For people with ALS, the eyes are the last body part to be affected due to the progressive nature of the debilitating illness, Ruben said.
Some assistive systems that use head movement, tongue, or a finger to control computers may provide more robust control, but the eye is the organ patients can still control when they have conditions such as ALS, according to Sang-won Leigh, a software developer for Eyecan+.
“I personally believe eye tracking is the most viable solution for people with a motor disability to use a computer,” Leigh wrote in an email.
Tobii delivers independent computing to paralyzed users
Tobii Technology — which in May purchased DynaVox, an augmentative and alternative communication company — offers eye-tracking technology that aids people with Parkinson’s, ALS or other conditions that result in paralysis due to a spinal cord or neck injury.
Tobii EyeMobile consists of a USB PCEye Go tracker that connects to a Windows 8 tablet, which can be placed on a wheelchair. Users can input text on a screen by staring at a letter for two seconds. To drag and drop an item on the desktop, users “gaze” at the drag-and-drop icon on the right taskbar, look at the item they want to move, then look at the spot where it should go.
The system also uses word prediction to help paralyzed users type. To scroll up or down on the page, users look at the middle of their screen and then move their eyes in the direction they want the page to go.
Eye-tracking technology allows paralyzed users autonomy while working on a tablet or PC, preventing them from having to rely solely on a family member or friend to type, according to Fredrik Ruben, president of Tobii Dynavox, the assistive technology division of Tobii.
“For our users, it means so much more than being able to read and write,” Ruben said. “It’s about independence.”
Before eye tracking, paralyzed users would need to have a stick glued to their forehead to try to type on a computer. The “leap” into eye tracking doesn’t require users to feel hampered by an apparatus attached to their head, Ruben noted.
Eye-tracking “provides you with a lot of normalcy, and it’s much faster,” Ruben said.
Although eye tracking has made great strides, there are still challenges to overcome, according to Leigh.
“The difficulty that eye tracker users might encounter is the switch from ‘using eye for information retrieval’ to ‘using eye for control,’” Leigh said. “This, I think, is the main hurdle, but, advances in software are lowering the hurdle.”