Yes, I’m typing with my eyes! Eye Gaze Technology Update: ERICA and MyTobii

If you are able to come along to next week’s BRITE seminar looking at alternative ways to access computers, one of the developments you’re likely to find most exciting is that of controlling a computer using only eye movements. (NB a few places are still available on this FREE seminar, click here for booking details.)

The technology has been around for a while now, but has typically been prohibitively expensive for many users and used primarily in research settings. However, while eye controlled devices are by no means cheap – ranging from around £4000 to around £12,000 – the cost has come down at such a rate to suggest that this is becoming a more available option for those who need it. It is a highly specialised area of technology, but one which could be of great use to students who have very limited movement and difficulty speaking. Careful assessment of a student’s needs, together with expert input is of course essential.

We’re excited about getting the opportunity to find out about and try the ERICA (Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid) next week, as Andy from PRI Liberator will be bringing it along for the BRITE seminar. This is an innovative device which I’ve seen at various exhibitions but not previously had a chance to try, so I plan to be first in line to have a shot!

Another eye-control system is MyTobii from Smartbox, which I have had an opportunity to try previously. I was really impressed with how quickly I was able to calibrate it to recognise my own eye movements and start controlling the computer! While SmartBox won’t be at BRITE on the 25th, you can catch them (and Liberator) at one of the Communication Matters Road Shows taking place around Scotland next week.

The ERICA eye gaze system has so far been used effectively by computer users who have Motor Neuron Disease. In addition to being controlled by eye movements, it can be also controlled by means of the touch screen and switches.

ERICA comprises of a tablet PC – effectively a monitor with a computer behind the screen – plus a camera which is positioned under the monitor. It is this camera, in conjunction with an infrared light, which tracks eye movements.

Good head control is an advantage, so users may benefit from a supportive headrest. To open a programme, the user looks at an icon, then either blinks or looks at it for a few seconds (“dwell” clicking). This will work with Internet Explorer and with the user’s preferred email programme. An on-screen keyboard allows the user to type by looking at the letters. So students can write essays, email tutors and access the internet – all without use of a mouse or keyboard!

The system weights 4 kg, has a rechargeable battery and can be mounted onto a wheelchair. It can also connect to a wireless network and be used to control the user’s environment e.g. lights, TV. Software that can be used to communicate by producing a synthetic voice is included in the ERICA system, thereby enabling a student who is without speech to actively participate, socialise and make their needs known.

The whole ERICA system, which includes the tablet computer (choice of Windows or iMac) costs around £6995. It is also available as an add-on to an existing computer (so you get the ERICA software, camera and infrared light). For a catalogue and more details, contact PRI Liberator (details below).

Moving on to an alternative device: MyTobii from SmartBox. The first, rather striking, difference between this device and the ERICA is the cost. MyTobii comes in at £11,900. There are options to rent it, one month rental is £990 and three months is £2620.

Having tried the MyTobii, I assume that the difference in price can be accounted for mainly by the fact that MyTobii has TWO cameras and more infrared light sensors. Therefore it is tracking both the user’s eyes, whereas the ERICA tracks only one. The benefit of dual-eye tracking is that it is more accurate and the system can cope with head movement. This makes it a better option for those who have difficulty keeping their head steady and who, for that reason, have become frustrated with head-operated-mice or head-operated switches.

MyTobii is built into a special monitor surrounded by sensors that follow eye movements. As well as providing access to all the usual features of a computer – such as such as Microsoft Word, Outlook Express and Internet Explorer – MyTobii comes with a specially adapted version of The Grid communication software.

A MyTobii user need only focus on a cell in The Grid to perform an action, rather than a tiny object like a menu item. It also means that the user does not need to be computer literate, as the system can be used directly with a symbol communication system. Cells in The Grid can be selected either by looking at the cell for a certain time (dwell selection) or by pressing a switch.

Like the ERICA, it is also possible to use MyTobii for environmental control, allowing the user to turn on the TV, set the video and dim the lights – all by simply moving the eyes.

If you’d like to see this technology for yourself but can’t make it along to our seminar or a Communication Matters Road Show, get in touch with PRI Liberator and/or SmartBox directly to find out when they’re next in your area to arrange a demonstration. Contact details are on their websites:

PRI Liberator: http://www.pri-liberator.com/
SmartBox: http://www.smartboxat.com/contact_us/

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