A Mesa-based virtual company is helping to improve the quality of life for patients with muscular disabilities by allowing them to operate personal computers hands free.
EyeTech Digital Systems has designed a hardware and software system that allows users to control a computer cursor by eye movements and blinking.
Called the Quick Glance eye tracking system, it is designed for patients with spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or other disabling conditions.
Eventually the technology could be put to other uses such as market research to follow the path of viewer eye movements over an advertisement, said Melinda Trego, cofounder of the company.
"We would like to see this integrated into other products," she said. "The capabilities are improving so fast, this could be the next mouse. It could replace the mouse."
Eye tracking technology isn’t new, but Trego said her company has improved it by developing a system that works with laptop computers and the Microsoft Windows operating system and costs as low of $4,500 — much less than such systems have cost in the past.
Quick Glance consists of two infrared light modules that mount on the sides of the computer’s display monitor, a camera that is placed on the keyboard to follow the movement of the user’s eye and software to make the system work.
The low-power infrared light — invisible to the naked eye — shines on the user’s eyes and creates reflections that are picked up by the infrared camera.
The user can control the movement of the cursor by moving his or her eyes over the screen and can perform the equivalent of a mouse click by blinking. When used in conjunction with an on-screen keyboard, a patient who is speaking- and movementimpaired can communicate by typing out words and letters.
The system allows the disabled to perform such functions as reading online books or sending e-mail messages - activities that make their lives more meaningful.
The system can be used by "anyone who can’t use a mouse and doesn’t mind sitting pretty still," Trego said.
Trego and her brother, an electrical engineer, formed their company in 1996 after he was disabled by a repetitive stress injury that prevented him from operating a normal keyboard.
Eye trackers were commercially available at that time, but they were complex and expensive, and they figured they could produce a design that was cheaper and more flexible, Trego said. Over the years they have sold hundreds of their systems, which use off-the-shelf technology they have modified for laptops and Windows.
EyeTech has only six employees, all of whom operate from their homes using a virtual-company business model.
Quick Glance has proven particularly useful as an associative technology for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A tragic motor-neuron ailment that causes deterioration of the muscles, ALS also can lead to difficulty in speaking. As a result, many ALS patients have a hard time using speech recognition technology that might otherwise help them operate computers, Trego said.
For those in the late stages of the disease, eye tracking often is the most effective communication method available, she said.
Kristin Bonilla, patient services coordinator for the ALS Association South Texas chapter in San Antonio, which has purchased one Quick Glance system, said early indications are that it will be helpful.
"We purchased a system through a grant that we received, but sadly we bought it for one gentleman who died before we could set it up for him," she said. "We just set it up for another patient last Saturday. This is the first person we have who has been able to work with it."
Ironically, because the disease prevents its victims from making extraneous head movements, ALS patients can become proficient quickly, she said.
"This is like the magic pill," she said.
Kim Hughes, patient services coordinator for the ALS Association Arizona chapter in Scottsdale, said her group uses an eye response system made by another firm, DynaVox, with several patients.
"I was blown away by it because these patients could literally not use anything but their eyes," she said.