Millions of disabled people around Europe could use the internet for the first time thanks to improved eye-tracking lasers, due to be trialled in the UK in the next few months.
Finnish researchers are co-ordinating a pan-European effort to improve the hardware and software that helps the disabled control computer applications using only eye movement.
The Communication by Gaze Interaction (COGAIN) project is aiming to provide 150 disabled people in the UK with the technology to use everyday computer applications by the end of next month.
Although infrared lasers have been used to detect people’s eye movements for at least 10 years, few disabled people use them to interact with computers because the hardware and software are expensive.
The University of Tampere’s Kari-Jouko Raiha, professor of computer sciences and the project’s leader, said: ‘It [the laser] looks at the centre of the pupil and another point which is usually the glint — the reflection in the eye. From the way that they change, the system is able to detect when the eye moves.’
Systems based on infrared lasers are too expensive for most disabled people to afford, and the applications that use them are too inflexible to cope with involuntary head movements. One of the project’s aims is to make the software so robust that it can accurately track eye movements using a webcam rather than a laser.
‘The goal is to have a variety of devices so that the user group chooses,’ added Raiha. A charity, the ACE Centre, will trial the improved technology in the UK, with disabled people who have no control over their bodies — typically those with athetoid cerebral palsy, characterised by uncontrolled, slow writhing movements.
The team is also hoping to develop the gaze-interaction software to help people who can control their body but not the movement of their eyes. Head injuries can cause a condition called nystagmus, which makes the eyes move constantly. Another condition called locked-in syndrome will also present a difficulty to software developers as sufferers can only move their eyes in one direction.
Mick Donegan, a teacher at the ACE Centre, said, ‘The number of systems that are being used, compared with the number of people who could benefit from them, is fractional.’