By George Cole
Like most 11-year-old girls, Caris likes to share a joke with her friends. But until recently, this form of interaction was beyond her reach, because Caris has an undiagnosed condition that has left her severely disabled – with limited movement with no physical control.
But thanks to a groundbreaking technology, Caris can now make jokes and even learn independently, thanks to an eye-tracking system developed by Swedish company Tobii Technology. To say it has changed Caris’s life would be an understatement. Claire Barnes, assistant head, learning technologies, at Willow Dene School in Greenwich says: “It’s the most transformational tool I’ve ever seen. It’s given Caris her own voice."
Tobii’s eye-tracking system shines an invisible (and harmless) infra-red light into the user’s eyes, and the light is reflected on to a sensor. Complex algorithms are used to determine the exact point of gaze. This point of gaze can be used for many things such as, controlling devices, answering multiple choice questions or creating words and sentences. Tobii’s system is also used by web designers and online companies, because it can be used to determine which parts of a website visitors look at the most.
But for parents and schools, the potential for Tobii’s eye tracking system to help children with severe physical disabilities is the most exciting development, not least, because users can usually get to grips with it within minutes, and there’s no need to wear special glasses or headsets. Tobii’s various eye tracking systems will be shown at the 2010 BETT technology show in London in January, at RM’s Living Spaces exhibition area (RM’s REAL Centre in Oxfordshire also houses a Tobii system) and at the Special Needs Fringe, held at the same time as BETT at the Olympia Hilton (Tobii is on stand S07).
'New mobile units free technology from desktop to lifestyle'
Hector Minto, Tobii’s UK sales manager, assistive technology, says the emphasis will be on portable eye tracking systems like the C8 and C12. These compact units can be attached to a wheelchair and mean that users are not tied to a desktop computer. “What we’ve done is to change the technology from a desktop system to a lifestyle device,” says Hector, “and, if you include an environmental control module and infra-red transmitters, children can open doors or windows, operate a telephone and even take photographs by using their eyes.” Greenfields special school in Northampton is putting infra-red transmitters around the building, so that children have more control over their surroundings.
Caris uses infra-red technology to play jokes on her friends and teachers. “I found a teddy bear on the internet, which can be controlled by infra-red,” explains, Claire, “and Caris has a lot of fun with it. The teddy has the ability to break wind and this can be triggered by infra-red control. Caris likes to ask people to cuddle the bear and then use the IR system to activate a fart when the teddy is held. “People start laughing with her,” says Claire, “and Caris enjoys being with other people and having a normal interaction with them.”
But Tobii has done much more than enable Caris to share a joke. Before using the system, Caris relied on a head switch, but after five or six presses, she was physically exhausted. She also used a communication book and eye blinks to communicate, but this relied on a communication partner, who would select numbers or symbols for Caris to respond to. “Once we got Tobii, we were able to set up communication grids and personalised grids for Caris,” explains Claire, “Now, she can interrupt in lessons without needing a communication partner, play her favourite music and do a number of educational activities (such as developing reading skills) independently.”
'It took Jaspar about three minutes to learn the system – it’s that intuitive'
Six-year-old Jaspar Tomlinson has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, and although he is intelligent, it has left him with severely limited physical control and speech that is difficult to understand. But his father, Max, says the Tobii system has completely changed things: “It took Jaspar about three minutes to learn the system – it’s that intuitive.” Now, Jaspar can play music in class, tell jokes and share his opinions with others. “It’s brought him closer to his classmates," adds Max. "He’s like a little boy who has come alive.”
There’s no doubt that eye tracking technology can make a huge difference to children’s’ lives, but there is a major issue over its use. “The biggest challenge is the cost of this technology,” says Claire. A complete Tobii system costs £11,000 and the eye-tracking module accounts for around £6,000 of the price. “There is a lack of provision for assistive learning technology," notes Claire. "In the past, you had initiatives like CAP (the Communication Aids Project), which providing funding for special needs equipment, but that’s long gone. We couldn’t fund Tobii through the school budget, but we were fortunate that the Sequal Trust [a charity that helps people with disabilities acquire communication aids] was able to raise the money.”
Hector Minto says: “The demand is there for the technology and I’m optimistic that in the long term, technologies like this will become mainstream – it will be something you have on your computer as a matter of course.” Let’s hope that he’s right, because as Max puts it: “This technology opens doors for people who have been locked inside themselves for years.”
January 13-16, Olympia, London
You can see Tobii at the Special Needs Fringe 2010, at the Olympia Hilton Hotel run by its distributor, Inclusive Technology, and on stand S07. It should also be on show at RM's learning spaces in Olympia 2.
Hector Minto (below) uses eye tracing to control a train set
Follow Hector Minto on Twitter
Sadly, Jaspar’s Tobii system was stolen but the good news is that he will be getting a replacement system in early 2010.