'Eye' on Technology Update

by Alyssa Quintero on Sun, 2009-03-01 09:16

Eyegaze users share their experiences

The Eyegaze Communication system from LC Technologies enables people with ALS to use their eyes to generate speech, create Word documents, surf the Web, send emails, control their environment and stay on the job.

Currently, LC Technologies offers two options — the Eyegaze Edge basic system ($8,700) and the new Eyegaze Edge Tablet ($10,500), which is smaller, has fewer wires and cables, and is more accurate. Both systems serve as speech-generating devices, and typical users average 20 words per minute.

The Eyegaze Edge camera and software also can be purchased separately ($7,250) and attached to a number of computers, including tablets, laptops or desktops, to make your own Eyegaze system.

According to the reports of two users with ALS, the Eyegaze system can be a portal to greater creativity and social connection.

Tell your story

Jack Orchard
Jack Orchard of St. Louis, Mo., relies on the Eyegaze system for much more than generating speech. Paralyzed from the neck down, Orchard wrote his 192-page autobiography using the Eyegaze and said the technology made the process “incredibly easy.”

For Jack Orchard of St. Louis, Mo., the basic Eyegaze communication system has been a blessing in many ways, not least of which was his ability to write and publish his autobiography, Extra Hands — Grasping for a Meaningful Life.

Paralyzed from the neck down, Orchard, 41, wrote the entire book using his Eyegaze system, which he’s had since 2005. It took about three months to produce a first draft and another 15 months to get it ready for publishing. (Extra Hands for ALS is an organization Orchard started in 2002 to provide helpers to families coping with ALS. The group disbanded in December 2008.)

Writing his book was “incredibly easy, almost effortless, thanks to the sophistication of the technology,” Orchard wrote via e-mail. “When you lose your natural connections to other people and replace them with a special tool like Eyegaze, you come to rely very heavily on it and using it becomes almost as natural as using the capabilities you’ve lost.”

Orchard uses the system at least 12 hours a day. A former venture capitalist with a degree in economics from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford, he says the learning curve isn’t very steep but does take some practice.

To use the system, a person stares at a letter on the screen for a certain “dwell” period (which is adjustable). Orchard says this may sound simple, but normally people aren’t accustomed to staring at a letter while typing.

“As we press keys with our fingers, we scan ahead with our eyes looking for the next letter,” Orchard explained. “But when you type with your eyes, you have to get away from scanning ahead and focus your glance only on the letter you want.”

It also took time for Orchard to get used to Eyegaze’s different screens for mouse control, environmental controls, text reader, common phrase reader and games. He currently uses the speed onscreen keyboard because the letters are arranged around the space bar according to how frequently they’re used in the English language, making it easier for him to type quickly with very little eye movement. With a dwell rate set at .18 seconds, Orchard types about 30 to 35 words a minute.

“That’s fast enough that it doesn’t even feel like ‘dwelling’ on a letter,” Orchard said. “I just look at anything on the screen, and the system instantly accepts my choice. It took many months to be able to use it effectively at this dwell duration, in the same way that it takes a lot of practice to type on a keyboard without looking at the keys.”

Orchard says the initial calibration of the system to his gaze was done in 10 seconds, but he typically recalibrates a few times a day to adjust to changing light in his office.

Orchard has connected his system to a separate PC which runs several software programs simultaneously. The Eyegaze system sits to the left of his PC, which is directly in front of him; since Eyegaze only tracks one eye, it doesn’t have to sit directly in front of the user.

One downside of having separate pieces is that it’s difficult to move the system to and from his desk and wheelchair. But Orchard says it’s safer to keep them separate because it “keeps the eye-tracking software insulated from the garbage you pick up by browsing the Web and e-mail like viruses, spyware, cookies, etc. If something causes your system to crash, at least your communication capability is never in jeopardy.”

New connections

In Castleton, Va., the Eyegaze Edge has changed John Singleton’s life in only six short months. Singleton, who received a diagnosis of ALS in 1991, had never been on the Internet before September when he received the Eyegaze Edge. Since then, Singleton has discovered ALS chat groups and communicated with people all over the globe.

John Singleton
John Singleton of Castleton, Va., proved a quick study with the new Eyegaze Edge system. Singleton logged on to the Internet for the first time when he received the system six months ago and has made numerous online connections.

The 47-year-old grandfather uses the system an average of 10 hours a day, sending e-mails, surfing the Internet and generating speech.

“I have a big family, and when we get together, it gets pretty loud. Before I got my Eyegaze, it was very hard for anyone to hear me. But now, I can say what’s on my mind, and everyone can understand me.”

He admits that the system was a bit challenging in the beginning, but that he caught on fairly quickly and continues to improve. At first his eyes would get dry after using it for a while, but he doesn’t have a problem now that his eyes have acclimated to the system.

Singleton’s one suggestion for improvement would be making the Edge easier to transport on his wheelchair. The Eyegaze Edge must be plugged in, making it difficult to transport the 15-inch flat-screen monitor. (The latest version, the Eyegaze Edge Tablet runs off its own battery and mounts to a wheelchair or table, making it easier to transport.)

The original Eyegaze communication system cost $32,000, but in the years since its development, the system has undergone several improvements and upgrades — making it more portable and affordable.

“All I used to do is watch television all day long, but now I have something to do of my own,” he said. “I get to communicate with people that have ALS in an online forum, and they tell me I’m helping them with what I say.”

Singleton even reconnected with his first love from 30 years ago. Although their lives went in different directions, Singleton always thought of her fondly. He managed to locate her online, and they’ve been “connected” ever since.

“I get to communicate with people online, and I’ve never been able to do that before in my life,” Singleton says of his Eyegaze Edge system. “I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”

Medicare will cover up to 80 percent of the cost for a communication device, and MDA offers a one-time $2,000 grant for devices prescribed through its clinics. MDA also will provide $500 annually for repairs and modifications. To learn more about the new Eyegaze Edge tablet system and other options, visit www.eyegaze.com, or call (800) 393-4293.

Alyssa Quintero
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