Music To Their Eyes

Innovation allows the severely disabled to compose music using only eye movement

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Three Boston College faculty members who invented a system to provide disabled persons a way of operating computers have refined the technology to offer users another experience: the joy of creating music.

"It's like composing jazz with your eyes," said Prof. James Gips (CSOM), who developed EagleEyes four years ago with colleagues Assoc. Prof. Peter Olivieri (CSOM) and Assoc. Prof. Joseph Tecce (Psychology).

EagleEyes allows severely disabled people to operate computers by moving their heads or eyes instead of hand-held controls. This innovation, combined with new commercially available software, allows an EagleEyes user to compose music by moving the cursor to sound notes on the computer screen.

Junior Sophia Yen works with Rick Hoyt, a technical consultant for Campus School, in testing the new EagleEyes technology. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The software was developed for marketing to a general audience, but the BC faculty members discovered the program could be readily adapted to the EagleEyes system.

When the music application is running, a screen appears on the computer that resembles an old TV test pattern, with a series of concentric rings corresponding to a range of notes. The user can make musical notes sound by setting the cursor on a chosen section of the screen.

In addition, the system supplies background music, such as a Herbie Hancock jazz selection. As Gips points out, the software was developed so that any improvisational notes played are in tune with the background, making it impossible to sound a "clinker."

"The nice thing about it is, it's no-lose - whatever the kids do with it, it sounds good," said Gips. "The genius of the program is that you have a range of different choices you can make, but whatever you do sounds remarkable."

"It's thoroughly enjoyable," said research assistant Jonathan Ralton '01, as he demonstrated the system recently in a Fulton Hall laboratory. Rigged with electrodes that connected him to the EagleEyes computer, Ralton simulated piano rolls and trumpet blasts simply by moving his head.

By adding a joystick, an able-bodied parent or friend can play along in a duet, Gips said, which makes the experience even more enjoyable.

"These kids are profoundly disabled and this is one of the few things they can do as equals with someone else," he said.

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