Eye-Tracking Technology Used For Nonverbal Patients Making Its Way To Video Games

Mar 29, 2016

This communication device lets Rosemary Akers, who suffers from ALS and can no longer speak, communicate by choosing words with her eyes. The same technology could one day be used in video games.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh-based company is finding new ways to use eye-tracking technology to help children with disabilities learn language skills at a younger age by playing digital games. Now the video gaming industry is taking notice.

Tobii Dynavox has been making devices to help nonverbal patients communicate with the help of computer-assisted voice technology. Many of their customers are stroke survivors and adults with degenerative diseases like ALS, in which sufferers lose muscle control. But the company is now looking to expand their devices to young children, and even toddlers.

“We’re working with local researchers from Penn State University,” said Tobii Dynavox Director of Products and Development Bob Cunningham. “And they have been working with kids and they find that if they start working with kids at 6 months, 9 months, a year old, that those kids go through a typical language development program and they start introducing literacy at age 3.”

The process involves a lot of games, pictures, shapes and numbers. The technology is similar to the eye-tracking technology some adults, like Rosemary Akers, have been using for years.

From her bed at a rehabilitation facility in Washington, Penn., Akers demonstrated how she uses her Tobii Dynavox device with her eyes. She was diagnosed with ALS more than a decade ago and can no longer speak or use her hands. She said her device is crucial to her care and comfort.

Rosemary Akers uses her Tobii Dynavox communication device. She can put together sentences by selecting individual letters or common phrases, by using only her eyes.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

“The machine has helped me to communicate with others who might help me with getting the medicine and getting the staff for assistance with bathing and suction,” Akers said, through her device.

Her caregiver, Dee Cassidy, said the device allows Akers to basically create text messages with her eyes. 

“She just looks at each letter of the alphabet, or on her phrases, and gazes upon it and there’s a red dot and then it appears up in the white box,” Cassidy said.

Cunningham said the technology has great potential for other uses, like video gaming.

“Basically the way it works is it bounces light off of your eye and catches the angle of the reflection, and through that can tell where you’re looking on the screen and, you know, there’s a lot of uses for that,” Cunningham said. “Tobii has just teamed up with several game manufacturers to introduce that kind of interaction in video games. So now, instead of having to steer the character left and right, I can just look left and right feel much more immersed in the game.”

The devices aren’t cheap. Some cost as much as $15,000 for the computer, software and lifetime service. Some insurance plans will cover the cost, but Cunningham said he wishes more providers would offer patients the speech machines.

Cassidy said the machine Akers uses has proven to be invaluable.

“I can’t even begin to express what a miracle this machine is in words,” she said. 

In this week's tech headlines: 

  • A team of engineers from Carnegie Mellon University developed a robot that can pick blueberries in a challenge by produce company Naturipe. The CMU robot was named as a semi-finalist in the blue challenge competition, winning the team $10,000. Contestants worked to find a better way to pick berries, which are harvested by hand. 
  • Drone deliveries could soon be flying into your neighborhood. A drone from tech company Flirtey successfully delivered a package to a residential location in a small Nevada town in what its maker and the governor of the state said Friday was the first fully autonomous urban drone delivery in the U.S. The route was established using GPS. A pilot and visual observers were on standby during the flight but weren't needed, said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny. The package included bottled water, food and a first-aid kit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.