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A key to freedom of communication for ventilated patients and ‘locked-in’ individuals with eye-controlled assistive technology

Individuals, who are fully aware, but don’t have the ability to speak or move, are considered ‘locked-in’. With EU funding, researchers have developed a communication device, EyeControl, that is wearable, screen-free and easy-to-use.

Digital Economy
Health

More than 1.2 million ‘locked-in’ individuals are affected by conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), stroke, and traumatic brain injury. In the United States (US), more than 5.7 million patients are admitted to ICU departments annually; approximately 40 % require mechanical ventilation, precluding communication and rendering them temporarily ‘locked-in’.

Communication for all; any time, any place

“EyeFree is disrupting the field of assistive technology by providing the EyeControl device,” says Or Retzkin, CEO of EyeFree Assisting Communication Ltd. “Wearable and screenless, the equipment enables 24/7 independent communication to ventilated hospital patients and ‘locked-in’ individuals,” he continues. The EyeControl tracks user eye movements with an infrared camera that transmits them to a small computer and converts them into actions. “With EyeControl, we don’t use a screen; instead, we rely on audio feedback, so that the user hears what they want to say instead of seeing it,” explains Retzkin. The company aims to democratise access to assistive technologies, making them easier to use and overcoming the communication-related pain points of ‘locked-in’ individuals and ventilated ICU patients. The EyeControl system facilitates interpersonal communication and environmental control, thereby improving quality of life for those who cannot speak.

EyeFree achieves commercial and technical success and continues to adapt to market needs

With Horizon 2020 SME-2 funding, the company propelled the device to CE marking, FDA listing and ISO 13485 certification. “During 2019, the company sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of the Home Care segment device, after receiving full reimbursement from the United Kingdom (UK) National Health Service, Israel Health Basket and US Medicare/Medicaid,” reports Retzkin. The core goals of this project were to reduce time to market and scale up the EyeControl to a market-ready innovative product, accelerating device status from prototype to fully operational beta. Commercial objectives also included creating a network of relevant stakeholders, raising product awareness, and building strategic partnerships for EyeControl’s successful market dissemination in Israel, the UK and the US. “We aim to invest in the EyeControl Medical Facility device to provide a safe remote communication tool to overcome challenges arising as a result of COVID-19,” emphasises Retzkin. In this way, EyeControl will gain market traction in hospitals and with government-level decision makers. The team is prepared for international scale up and ready to invest the resources necessary to exploit this unique market opportunity.

Communication is a basic human need

Loss of communication is perhaps the most significant obstacle facing ‘locked-in’ individuals for personal connections with loved ones, expressing their needs to medical staff, or continuing to participate in activities of daily life. Mechanical ventilation inhibits communication among trauma patients in hospital ICUs and rehabilitation centres, so the eyes become an essential means of expression. A patient’s ability to communicate in this state results in more accurate medical treatment and accelerates their recovery, ultimately allowing them to return to their personal lives. “Looking to the future, once the niche market for the EyeControl device has been consolidated, we will boost market entry and be known as the global communication platform for ventilated and ‘locked-in’ patients, with two main product lines: EyeControl Home and Facility,” states Retzkin. The future looks bright for the technology, with several awards already under the team’s belt. EyeFree was the winner of the April 2020 EIC ePitch for COVID-19 solutions and the September 2019 European Commission Innovation Radar Prize - Tech for Society category.

Keywords

EyeControl, communication, Locked-in, ventilated, ICU, assistive technology, wearable, COVID-19, ISO 13485, eye tracking

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