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CMU Students Create App For ALS Patients

There are an estimated 30,000 Americans living with Lou Gehrigs Disease, also known as, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, at any given time, according to the ALS Association.

Neil Alexander is one of those people.

“You eventually become paralyzed,” he said, “and you can’t speak.”

That’s where iExpress comes in.

The app, developed by Carnegie Mellon University graduate students Abhishek Sharma and Douglas Rew, allows ALS patients to digitally communicate with their caregivers. Using an eye tracker and a tablet, a patient can select and send a message just by staring at it.

“I would be able to activate this program to send my wife a message that she would receive on her smartphone,” Alexander said. “So this frees her up to go around the house or go out in the yard, and I am still able to communicate with her.”

The app can be used to notify a caregiver when a patient is hungry, needs to use the restroom, wants to talk or is having an emergency. All of the messages are delivered with a specialized sound so the caregiver knows how immediate the situation is. For example, a patient is having an emergency, the notification sounds something like a fire alarm, but if the patient wanted to talk, it’s more like a soft ping.

According to Alexander, the app’s only drawback is the limited number of commands.

“The purpose of this is something simple, affordable, easily distributable – so you have to strike a balance,” he said.

Sharma recognizes the apps faults, but said it’s necessary to improve the app’s accuracy.

“We were limited with the space of the tablet,” he said. “And another thing is, if we have too many buttons there might be a possibility that, if things shift, if the device shifts, his face shifts, he might not be able to reach the ones that he probably needs.”

Alexander and Sharma said eye trackers are nothing new, but they’re usually expensive, costing as much as a few thousand dollars. The iExpress system is projected to cost a few hundred dollars, according to Alexander.

Sharma said Alexander was consulted in all development and testing to see how the app would hold up in real world situations.

“It really is a very engaging experience to build something that’s actually applicable and directly used in real life by a patient,” Sharma said.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."
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