Eye-tracking technology is an option for computer users with ALS who are no longer able to control a traditional mouse or use a regular keyboard.
Eye-tracking systems generally feature a camera mounted at the bottom of the screen that “tracks” the eyes as they move across the screen, and fix momentarily on a button for activation or on an onscreen keyboard to spell a message for speech or text output.
|Joseph Martin uses the Eyegaze system from LC Technologies
|Steven Nichols uses the ERICA system by Eye Response Technologies.
Many speech-language pathologists (SLP) agree that an eye-tracking system can provide a vital lifeline to the world, especially for people with ALS who have zero mobility.
Jeff Edmiaston, an SLP at the MDA/ALS Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, argues that the systems can have “great benefits” because people often use them to continue working after an ALS diagnosis. Edmiaston also said that the systems are compatible with personal computers or augmentative alternative communication (AAC) devices for computer access and speech output purposes.
Michelle Taggart, an SLP at the MDA/ALS Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said, “Most of our ALS clients have upper-extremity weakness, and we know that they aren’t going to be able to use a keyboard forever or adapted mouse.
“With an eye-tracker, speed is the No. 1 benefit for people with ALS,” Taggart explained.
Amy Wright, a certified SLP at the MDA/ALS Center at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., emphasized, “I think that the best candidates are clients who are comfortable with the technology and have a good, tech-savvy support system.”
Improving quality of life
Joseph Martin, 65, of Charlotte, N.C., received a diagnosis of ALS in 1994, and with the help of the Eyegaze Communication System from LC Technologies, he’s written and published two books — On Any Given Day, a memoir of coping with ALS, and Fire in the Rock, a novel about growing up in the segregated South.
“Eyegaze alone made it possible for me to keep working at the bank and writing,” said Martin, a retired Bank of America vice president who uses the Eyegaze system along with his DynaVox speech-generating device. “It’s no stretch to say that Eyegaze is a lifesaver.”
Steven Nichols, 55, of Clifton, Va., was a software engineer and has worked as a part-time Web site developer for the last few years. He has used both the ERICA system from Eye Response Technologies and the Eyegaze system.
Nichols, who received his ALS diagnosis in November 1994, hasn’t had shoulder, arm or hand movement since 1999. He and his wife are constantly traveling, so he relies on the ERICA system because it’s portable and supports computer access without requiring a second computer like the Eyegaze system.
|ERICA system from Eye Response Technologies
“Its [the ERICA system’s] effect has been immeasurable,” Nichols said. “It’s not only my communication device for everyday needs and conversation but it’s my entertainment center and window to the world.…
“It enables me to be a productive member of society,” Nichols emphasized. “I have even been able to maintain employment. And, it affords me a great amount of independence.”
In addition to using it as his “communication vehicle,” Nichols also uses the system for Web site developing, financial tracking, investing, paying bills and playing games.
“It [eye technology] has come a long way since I first tried it in 2000,” Nichols explained. “The accuracy of the system is incredible, given the nuances of the eyes, and you can’t beat the speed of direct select over scanning systems.”
Where can I get one, and how much does it cost?
Eye-tracking systems range from $8,000 to $20,000. Here’s a look at four systems:
- ERICA System by Eye Response Technologies — The Windows-based portable tablet PC can be mounted to a wheelchair and operates for eight hours before recharging. The Macintosh-based system uses the latest iMac computer. The standard system starts at $8,000 ($7,300 if the computer is dedicated to this use only), and the eye-tracking camera and software ($6,900) can be installed separately on your personal computer. www.eyeresponse.com, or (434) 296-3846.
- Eyegaze Communication System by LC Technologies — Eyegaze, the first device of its kind to hit the market, has set the standard in the field. The user “gazes” at rectangular keys displayed on the control screen; the system features a special settings program that permits adaptations to various eye conditions, including droopy eyelids. It can be used with an additional PC for computer access. The Eyegaze costs $14,900. www.eyegaze.com, or (800) 393-4293.
|My Tobii Eye Control System by Tobii Technology
- My Tobii Eye Control System by Tobii Technology — The newest eye-tracking system detects where the user is looking on the screen, as well as the locations of all objects on the screen. It removes the need to control a mouse pointer or cursor with the eyes. The system allows head movement, and tracking begins automatically when the user is in front of the system. It offers specially designed applications for eye-controlled e-mail, speech synthesis, Web browsing and text editing. The retail price is $19,795 for the computer and software package ($17,295 dedicated). www.tobii.com, or (415) 336-3434.
- Quick Glance by EyeTech Digital Systems — This system (laptop, on-screen keyboard and on-site training) starts at $8,800. It gives users the ability to communicate with text or speech output. The software, lights and high-definition camera can be purchased separately and installed on another PC for $4,500. www.eyetechds.com, or (480) 704-3158.
Reminder: Medicare will cover up to 80 percent of the cost for an AAC device. MDA assistance also is available for AAC repairs.