The Urban Scientist

Talk to me, with your eyes

Eye tracking technology allows ALS sufferers to express creativity

October 28, 2011

When Los Angeles graffiti artist Tony Quan, otherwise known as Tempt1, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he lost all muscle function in his body – except in his eyes. His brain was fully functioning, but he could not speak nor move a limb. His ideas were as abundant as ever, but he was an artist without any form of expression.

And then came The Eyewriter, a combination eye-tracking and drawing software that enabled Tempt1 to draw with his eyes. From a small hospital bed, Tempt1 drew the images in his mind while artists and hackers from the Free Art & Technology Lab drove around, downloading the images from the trunks of their cars and projecting them onto buildings for all of downtown L.A. to see.

Zach Lieberman, one of the creators of The Eyewriter, spoke about the impact of this technology for artists like Tempt1 at the October 18th “Talk to Me” symposium at The Museum of Modern Art. The auditorium was filled with Radiolab enthusiasts eager to hear the NPR program’s co-hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad banter about the relationship between people, objects and design, but it was Lieberman’s video of Tempt1 using The Eyewriter that stunned the audience.

The first half of The Eyewriter can be made from any old pair of glasses retrofitted with some copper wire, a micro-camera and near-infrared LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to illuminate the entire eyeball, making the pupil appear darker in comparison. This contrast makes it easier for the camera to detect and track the position of the pupils, enabling the eye-tracking software to map their coordinates onto a computer screen.

The second part of The Eyewriter, the drawing software, uses a time-based interface so that the user can focus on a position on the screen for a specific amount of time to trigger different buttons (such as a color change) or create a new drawing point.

Lieberman and his team wanted The Eyewriter to be available to anyone – they offer the source code for the drawing software for free online, complete with step-by-step instructions on how to set it up. And for around $50 and the time it takes to learn how to engineer the eye-tracker, anyone eager enough can make The Eyewriter.

While not perfect, Lieberman said the software is pretty accurate. He explained that “your input is your output” – in other words, the user sees the dot show up on the point of the screen where their eye is looking.

One audience member asked how Tempt1 was able to take a break, to think about what he wanted to draw without the software still tracking his eyes.

Lieberman explained that it was hugely important to have a safe zone where Tempt1 could look to pause the system and look at what he was doing, so they made sure this was part of The Eyewriter’s design.

“With an eye tracker it’s really hard to use your peripheral vision to get a complete sense of what you’re doing,” said Lieberman. “You never really get the full picture.”

Despite its imperfections, Lieberman said the best moment of the project was watching Tempt1’s face light up seeing the work that he made.

“It was amazing watching him use it,” said Lieberman. “You could really learn what he was thinking, watching him map what he was going to do.”

About the Author

Allison T. McCann

Allison T. McCann has a B.S. in science, technology and society from Stanford University, an interdisciplinary major that sparked an interest in all things that swipe, zoom, beep, fly or otherwise involve cool technology. How does that work? is the eternal question that lingers in her thoughts during long runs along the Hudson. A born and raised California girl, she’s a bit nervous about the New York winters, but is very excited to continue writing about science and technology at SHERP. Follow her on Twitter.


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