Behind The Eyewriter, A Life-Changing Eyetracking System Designed For Sufferers Of ALS & Paralysis

Senior Contributor

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a terrifying disease for its sufferers. Essentially, the neurons that command the muscles begin to die, for reasons that are still unclear. As they do so, the muscles in the body weaken and atrophy, until ultimately the sufferer is left completely paralyzed — except for their minds.

Tony Quan is one such sufferer. Better known as TEMPTONE, he’s a graffiti artist and activist who’s been working since the early 1980s, and in fact was key in creating the Los Angeles style as graffiti became a form of both art and protest. But since 2003, his ALS has interfered with his work.

Until the Eyewriter was invented, that is.

ALS sufferers at advanced stages can use eye-tracking systems to communicate and operate computers. But these systems sometimes require brain surgery and can be expensive to use and implement. Some, like guitarist Jason Becker, have invented entirely novel systems to communicate and even compose.

But none seemed up to the task of drawing. So, members of esteemed groups like Free Art and Technology, the Graffiti Research Lab, and OpenFrameworks teamed up to create simple hardware to construct and freely distributed software to use to create a low-budget system that would allow Tempt One to draw with his eyes. And it not only works, it costs $50.

The basic technology is ingenious: the current system uses a cheap webcam, generally a Playstation Eye, and three infrared illuminators. For each frame the webcam records, odd frames flashing the side illuminators and even ones flashing the center one. Thus, on odd frames, the pupil appears dark, while on even ones the pupil appears bright. The software uses this alternating pattern to track the eye as it moves. Mount it on a pair of cheap sunglasses and you have a workable system.

The result is extremely accurate — remember, webcams can run at high framerates. As a result, Tempt has the precision he needs to design graffiti tags. Here’s a video of a tag being built side-by-side with his eye movements.

But the equipment and software is vastly more powerful than just letting Tempt draw with his eyes. He can actually physically paint with them. How? By using the software and the laptop as a bridge. In an odd way, Tempt has become a sort of cyborg. For example, he can create graffiti with a robotic paintball gun:

Tempt’s tags were turned into an open-source language for sharing tags online, Graffiti Markup Language (GML). Artist Benjamin Gaulon then converted a robotic paintball gun he’d designed to process GML — meaning Tempt can tag walls across the world, thanks to the language.

But, why stop there? The Eyewriter can also be connected to a robotic arm…

And that’s just a GML tag — Tempt can also do it live…

Essentially, as the software improves, and work on it is constant, the Eyewriter will become more and more flexible, allowing more creativity and communication for people who even ten years ago would have been locked off from the world.

This demonstrates both the power of technology like the Eyewriter and open source software. None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the hacking community and the processors they use to turn out more and better equipment. This is, quite literally, life-changing gear for sufferers of ALS and other disorders, and as hackers turn to other ways, it’ll drive down the costs of building what was once rare and specialized equipment while freeing those suffering from being unable to communicate or create art.

With support from our partner, Intel, we’re exploring the technology and tools that unleash the creativity and productivity of today’s musicians. Intel is committed to improving our lives with easy to use, efficient technology. Their goal is to develop tools that help put technology in the hands of everyone.

Content and/or other value provided by our partner, Intel Pro PMI Network.

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