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Device helps disabled children communicate through sight

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With the help of a developing technology, severely disabled children and adults will soon be able to tell their parents, “I love you.”

They will be able to play educational games, request a specific toy and write messages.

The ability to communicate may be as simple as glancing at a computer screen.

EagleEyes is a vision-based device that allows users to move a cursor on a computer screen with only their eyes. People who have severe cerebral palsy, have been born with a brain defect or suffered a traumatic brain injury can control a computer by looking at a screen.

The computer program will recognize what they are looking at, with their gaze acting as a mouse would.

“The kids and the adults we work with are completely locked into their bodies. The only thing they have is the control and use of their eyes,” said Deborah Inkley, executive director of the Opportunity Foundation of America, which produces the device. “There is no magic answer. No pill that will help them be ‘normal.’ But this technology allows them to be treated like real people.”

The device works by measuring a user’s electro-oculographic potential, or the exact position of a person’s eyes.

Small electrodes are placed on a person’s forehead, above and below one eye, and on each side of the head to the right and left of the eyes. Those electrodes are connected to the computer, where a program translates the signals to position the cursor on the screen.

As a person moves the eyes, the cursor moves. With a little bit of practice, the method can allow the user to “type” a character or letter every 2.5 seconds, Inkley said.

“It picks up the electrical signal of the eye, the way our cornea and retina rotate in the eye socket,” Inkley said. “Through the use of the electrodes, it takes that electrical signal, magnifies it 10,000 times and converts it into the mouse cursor. It’s a mouse replacement.”

EagleEyes was developed during the past 20 years by James Gips, a computer science professor at Boston College. He and his students had been playing with technology that measured the electronic signals produced by the eyes.

Partnering with the special education school located across the street from his campus office, Gips was able to tweak and adjust it to allow for those with significant disabilities to use it.

“It was just a laboratory system. We could bring in children to make use of it in our lab, but then we had to figure out a way to get it out in the world,” Gips said.

When he was satisfied with the final product, Gips started looking for a way to distribute it to the special needs community. He had multiple medical device companies willing to pay millions of dollars for it, but he wanted to make sure the people who needed it most could afford it.

Gips was introduced to Inkley, who has just started the nonprofit Opportunity Foundation of America to help the disabled. She was searching for a signature project for her organization. Both Inkley and Gips felt that EagleEyes was an ideal place to start.

Since 2005, the organization has provided 200 of the devices for disabled individuals around the country. The Opportunity Foundation of America charges $1,200 for each one normally.

But after receiving a grant at the end of 2013, that cost will go down to $800, in addition to paying for a trainer to come out and help families set up and use the devices.

A majority of EagleEyes users are only able to play cause-and-effect games with the device. They make a choice using the eye-cursor, and move through the game to the next challenge.

For many special needs individuals, that is something they’ve never experienced.

“Every single thing in their life is done for them. When the kids internalize that they just did something on their own for the very first time, if they’re able to smile, it will melt your heart,” Inkley said.

But a few will be able to use EagleEyes to move through the educational process. One child, Michael Nash, was able to graduate from high school using the system, and others have been able to attend school.

Regardless of what they are able to achieve, each child that uses EagleEyes is a success, because it gives a voice to people who otherwise would remain silent.

“It’s very moving to learn of a child who many people doubt has cognitive capabilities. The child already has all of these physical disabilities, and if the child is thinking and people are doubting they can do it, it’s a double whammy,” Gips said. “We can demonstrate that the child is thinking about the world and is trapped in there, it’s very rewarding for the child and the family.”

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