REDMOND, Wash. - In late July a team at Microsoft were presented with a challenge by former New Orleans Saints star Steve Gleason: find a way to let him drive his wheelchair by using his eyes.
Gleason suffers from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. For Gleason that muscle-wasting disease in a few short years has now robbed him of even the ability to control the joystick in his electric wheelchair.
Gleason was featured in several Microsoft commercials on accessibility. He was in one that ran during last season’s Super Bowl, where he can be seen speaking by “typing” with his eyes on a virtual keyboard displayed on a Surface tablet. The challenge to the Microsoft team: If he could use the Surface to speak, could it also help him drive his wheelchair just by looking left and right and up and down?
The former athlete’s appearance was part of a company-wide “hackathon” where some 12,000 Microsoft employees were asked to delve into the company’s products and find new ways to use them and fix problems. The team that designed a new wheelchair interface won. They found a solution in just two days.
On Thursday, principal software design engineer Gershon Parent used his eyes to drive a wheelchair identical to Gleason’s. It’s called EyeGaze. Users can follow on a Surface tablet as a sensor moves a red dot to the right side of the screen to go right, the left side of the screen to turn left, up in the center to go straight forward and down in the center to stop. Another sensor from an X-Box detects a person or object in front of the wheelchair to permit an emergency stop.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who belongs to Microsoft’s Accessibility Customer Experience and chairs the disability group. “I think how we move forward is now key. But we’ve got to figure that out.”
The prototype works by wiring a custom built circuit board into a joy stick controller on the motorized wheelchair, essentially turning the surface and the human eye sensor into a joy stick.
And while the “hack” still has wires running around and pieces of duct tape holding parts in place, this is how products start and eventually get developed into something for the market place.
The bottom line is that it works. Lay-Flurrie says the intention is to make the technology widely available, turning a simple glance of the eye into a key that unlocks doors for the disabled.