Former WSU, NFL star helping Microsoft improve products for disabled

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by JANE MCCARTHY / GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on July 29, 2014 at 6:04 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 29 at 6:20 PM

REDMOND, Wash. - In its first "hack-a-thon" more than 1,000 Microsoft employees in Redmond alone are looking for changes in software and products to make them better.  As one executive put it, "Looking for things you didn't see before."

But could some of those improvements work on behalf of the disabled?    You might recall several Microsoft ads on TV, including one that ran during the Super Bowl, that included Steve Gleason.  Gleason is a former NFL star for the New Orleans Saints who also played for the Washington State Cougars in college.

Gleason played for the Saints from 2000 to 2008.  In 2011 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.  The ALS association describes it as a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Gleason has formed "Team Gleason" to try and find a cure for the disease.  His motto?

"No white flags."

On Tuesday, Gleason was on the Microsoft campus to inspire teams of employees looking to make the company's products more accessible, including the Surface tablet Gleason uses to communicate by scanning his eyes over a virtual keyboard displayed  in front of him.  It's what Microsoft calls Eye Gaze.

"For the last two years, we have met with technology companies to try and engage the population of people with the most physical limitations," said Gleason. A speaker turns the spelling of words through Eye Gaze into spoken word that actually uses his own voice through the computer.

What Gleason and the accessibility teams will try and figure out, among various projects, is how to make the Surface more controllable.  Now when his Surface turns off, somebody else has to step in and turn it on again.

"We want to make it so you're independent with your machine," said Jenny Lay-Fleurrie, director of Microsoft Accessibility and leader of the Eye Gaze team.

The teams will also see if the wheelchair can also be driven by simply following the gaze of an eye.

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