Device brings high-tech to disabled students
By Heidi Toth
31 January, 2006
MATT SMITH/Daily Herald Britt Allen, a volunteer with The Opportunity Foundation of America, reacts while working with Maureen Gates of the Boston College Campus School, as they demonstrate the EagleEyes eye-controlled technology at Oakridge School in Springville, Monday morning. The technology gives people with severe special needs a way to communicate with their eyes.
Britt Allen sat in front of a computer, blue electrodes attached to his face and multicolored wires running from the electrodes to a small box next the machine. His eyes focused on the screen as he used his left thumb to type out a message to Maureen Gates.
She adjusted the settings on the computer, raised the screen and the 24-year-old Salt Lake City man got back to his activity -- shooting aliens with his eyes. Once the settings were right he was on target, and 10 little green men exploded one after another, each in an average time of 1.7 seconds.
Allen, a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, is the poster user for Eagle Eyes, a new technology that allows people with severe disabilities to use computer programs by moving their eyes. He demonstrated the process at Oakridge School in Springville, Nebo School District's school for children with severe disabilities.
The Opportunity Foundation of America donated two sets of equipment to Oakridge on Wednesday. The school will be a testing center for students and also will be the training school for other schools in Utah.
The technology offers a way for people with autism or other communication disorders to communicate. Using their eyes to move the mouse, they can select between food choices, activities, feelings, locations of pain or illness or, in some cases, answers to a medical college admission test. It can teach cause and effect, communication and education.
But its purpose is much simpler.
"The first is fun, first is gratification," said Gates, a project director for Eagle Eyes, which was created by Dr. James Gips at Boston College. "Second is gratification. Third is empowerment. Fourth is education."
The technology was created for people who can only move their eyes. The electrodes track the eye movement and act as a mouse substitute that is set to click after about half a second. Whatever the eyes are focused on, the program selects.
"It goes from fun and excitement to control over your own life," Gates said.
Oakridge Principal Richard Kay said as soon as he found out about the technology he wanted it, and after months of meeting with foundation founder Debbie Inkley and going to Jordan Valley School to see the equipment and go through training he was glad to get it.
"We're going to try every student in the school, whether they meet the physical requirement or not," he said.
Oakridge has a full-time staff member who will assess the progress of students using Eagle Eyes as well as training other administrators. The technology costs about $1,200 per unit and can be used with a regular computer with Windows XP.
Monday was an exciting day for Inkley as well, who has made the goal of her foundation to distribute the technology. She introduced Allen and the technology, visited with Oakridge staff and parents of children who'd used the program and flashed a big smile as she handed the goody bag with the equipment to Kay. She also cheered when Allen hit his final alien and led the applause when he made a big announcement through a computerized voice box.
"I am engaged," he told everyone in the room with a big smile.
"This isn't a magic wand," Inkley said, cautioning every parent that Eagle Eyes doesn't cure disorders.
But it is something.
Heidi Toth can be reached at 344-2543 or firstname.lastname@example.org