Small Wonder

Faculty miniaturize their revolutionary EagleEyes technology, helping the severly disabled use computers

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

EagleEyes, the eye-controlled computer system devised by three Boston College faculty members, is available as a smaller, portable model that its inventors say could help improve the quality of life for people with severe physical limitations.

Originally developed by associate professors James Gips (CSOM), Peter Olivieri (CSOM) and Joseph Tecce (Psychology), EagleEyes links users to a computer via a series of electrodes attached around their eyes, allowing the cursor to move in response to head and eye motions. The system has been in use for over a year at the Campus School, where disabled students utilize it to draw, read books, listen to music, and learn colors, shapes and the alphabet.

Assoc. Prof. James Gips (CSOM) displays the new, miniaturized EagleEyes technology atop the original unit. At rear is Michael Nash, who is practicing with the new technology at the Campus School. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Recently, the EagleEyes team succeeded in miniaturizing the technology from the approximate size of a stereo system to that of a videocassette. Disabled children can use the new model at home or at school, Gips said, and it could open up a world of possibilities for people who might otherwise be closed off from the world around them.

"Before EagleEyes, these children were totally trapped inside their bodies," Gips said. "While they may be bright and eager to communicate, they had no way to express themselves. Once EagleEyes is in their homes, there's no telling where it will lead them."

Gips and his colleagues were assisted by the Westwood-based firm LTX Corp. in creating the miniaturized EagleEyes, one of which is at the Campus School. In addition to several Campus School students, it is used by six disabled children attending schools in the Greater Boston area who visit the EagleEyes lab on a weekly basis.

Once more devices are available, Gips said, these and other disabled students could bring the miniaturized EagleEyes to their schools and use them with classroom computers. EagleEyes would serve as their notebooks and pencils, allowing the children to achieve more in their schoolwork and, at home, to continue developing reading, writing and other skills.

Gips expects six more systems to be built in the next six months, and a second one will be installed at the Campus School shortly. Demand for the system at the Campus School is high, which Gips said leaves students limited time for much-needed practice. He feels that students would improve their eye coordination more rapidly if they could use the system on a regular basis.

"It's like taking piano lessons," he explained. "If children can only play for one or two hours a week, their progress will be slow. As it stands now, they are missing the practice component, which places a lot of pressure on them when they are in the lab."

The EagleEyes developers have received valuable technical assistance, Gips said. The Andersen Consulting Fund helped sponsor the EagleEyes project and Apple Inc. donated the services of one of its top software developers to help design EagleEyes so it would function like a computer mouse. Not only does this enable users to operate most Macintosh computers, Gips said, they can utilize most CD-ROMs on the market, provided they are point-and-click programs.

In addition, Rick Hoyt, an advocate for people with disabilities, has joined the Campus School as a consultant to the EagleEyes project. Hoyt, who has cerebral palsy, is learning to use the system and makes suggestions on how it can be improved.

Gips said the potential range of uses and types of users for the system is extensive. Recently, it was tested on a 55-year-old alumnus who was paralyzed a few years ago and had become generally disinterested in his surroundings. EagleEyes staff designed a home page on the World Wide Web geared to his interests and he "surfed the Web for quite a while," Gips said. According to people in the room, the man had tears in his eyes once he realized the technology's potential.

"Eagle Eyes has the potential to improve the quality of life for many people with physical limitations," Gips said, "and the miniaturization is the first step to making it available to a wider audience."

Return to April 25 menu

Return to Chronicle Home Page