eInclusion The eyes have it: communication for the severely disabled
Thanks to an ongoing European-based project, seriously disabled people now have access to cheaper tools that allow them to communicate by using their eye movements.
In Europe alone, an estimated 500,000 people are only able to communicate or send out signals by moving their eyes, a task that requires highly specialised hardware and software.
The COGAIN project is a ‘network of excellence’ designed to organise European research in eye-tracking integration using computers.
Establishing a sustainable network for sharing training resources and standards among the various laboratories enables researchers to develop new technologies and systems more efficiently. The researchers hope to improve existing gaze-based interaction techniques, and push forward the implementation of such technologies for everyday communication.
Developing eye-gaze technologies
The teams are concentrating on the use of eye-gaze technologies for communication, for mobility, and for environmental control. For example, the technologies could allow a disabled person to control a wheelchair or command an intelligent home system by eye movement alone.
Until recently, such tools were not available to many of those who needed them because of the high cost of the eye-control equipment, and the lack of suitable, compatible applications. Even those who were able to afford eye-control systems found them difficult to use. The current systems are also only capable of performing limited functions.
The project’s researchers are now coordinating themselves in order to better solve these problems, and to develop new and cheaper technologies. They aim to give the most disabled members of society communication and command tools they can use to control computers, or access the internet, for example.
More than 100 researchers from research groups and companies in 11 countries are concerned by the COGAIN networking efforts. Since the project kicked off in 2004, they have already managed to come up with some promising new eye-tracking technologies.
These allow text to be quickly created by eye-typing, which usually involves the user pointing his or her eyes at a section of a grid of keyboard displayed on a computer screen. Users are also able to switch between screens and select from menus.
Full on-line control
Now, even paralysed people who are so incapacitated they also need a respirator to breathe are able to function normally in cyberspace. The system enables them to write and send e-mails and blogs, communicate by instant messaging, control on-line audio and visual feeds, play games and follow news and sports.
As well as making such technological breakthroughs, COGAIN’s researchers have contributed to reducing the price of access equipment by designing their system in a modular form and by standardising existing technologies.
They were able to do this by their ability to bring together and coordinate the knowledge, influence and market clout of the project’s partners.
New technologies pioneered under the COGAIN umbrella include Dasher, an information-efficient communications system driven by continuous pointing gestures. This can be via a regular mouse, by touch screen or by gaze direction.
Using Dasher, a disabled user can write anything, with well-predicted phrases being written the fastest. With practice, users can write at nearly 30 words a minute – or faster than most people can type – via a gaze-tracker device.
Predictive text entry
Another product developed by the project is the GazeTalk predictive text entry system, an eye-tracking-based system able to support several languages. It currently supports Danish, English, Italian, German and Japanese, and comes with e-mail and web-browsing capabilities and has a multimedia player and PDF readers.
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