Published: March 21, 2010
A group of artists and hackers have crafted a gadget that lets a paralyzed graffiti artist continue making art using only his eyes. And it costs about as much as an iPod shuffle.
Zach Lieberman of the Graffiti Research Lab started working on the EyeWriter with one man in mind: Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Tony Quan. In 2003, Quan was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, leaving virtually every muscle in his body paralyzed except for his eyes. Lieberman and developers from Free Art and Technology, OpenFrameworks and the Ebeling Group were inspired to create low-cost, open-source hardware and software for eye-tracking to help Quan draw again.
Eye-tracking technology, in which computers and small cameras harness eye movements for writing, highlighting Web site text and other tasks, has led to digital tools for users with disabilities. However, as Lieberman tells NPR’s Liane Hansen, those devices usually have hefty price tags.
"Commercial eye-trackers, to get a device is $10,000-$15,000," he says. The EyeWriter is estimated to cost about $50. He and his hacker colleagues have a do-it-yourself kit for building an EyeWriter that starts with a pair of sunglasses. For Lieberman’s prototype, he bought a pair from a vendor at Venice Beach.
"Then we assembled a kind of wire frame that holds a Web cam, a small camera that we've mounted close to the eye," he explains. "We've written software that tracks the eye, and then we calibrate with [Quan's] eye movements and the computer screen."
Quan can draw lines and color within them, though graffiti-writing with the EyeWriter is nowhere near as fast as shaking up a can of spray paint and drawing by hand.
"But he can plot points. And from plotting points, create letters. And from creating letters, create words. And then color the words, shade the words, extrude them in 3-D, add different features," Lieberman says.
The artist-hacker team studied Quan's art and his love of letter forms in order to produce the most effective software for him. They've just won a FutureEverything Award for innovation. That honor includes a cash prize, but Lieberman says he and the developers aren't interested in following the stereotypical storyline for a tech start-up: splashy launch, market saturation, initial public offering, high-priced sale. They want to help people who could use the EyeWriter to communicate, whether by graffiti or much simpler written words.
"There are people who have loved ones who have ALS or locked-in syndrome ... or other diseases, where having that option, at least, of a kind of device that you can build for somebody in need is really important and really necessary," he says. "We're not in it to make money. This is really coming from the heart." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The South by Southwest Interactive Festival is all about invention, inspiration and innovation. Zach Lieberman and his team have created a new way for people to interact with computers. This year, they won the Future Everything Award for their newest innovation called the EyeWriter - that's E-Y-E writer. We caught up with Lieberman after one of the sessions in the Austin Convention Center.
Mr. ZACH LIEBERMAN (Co-Creator, EyeWriter): What I've been developing or what we have won a prize for is an eye tracking device. And that's a device that allows you to communicate with the computer using your eyes. And I'm working with a team of people and we've been developing low-cost open source hardware and software for eye tracking.
The project is called the EyeWriter and it was inspired and created for the graffiti writer based in L.A. His name is Tony Quan or his graffiti name is Tempt. And about seven years ago he was walking down the street and fell over and he was diagnosed with ALS, with Lou Gehrig's Disease. And he's on a ventilator and he can only communicate using his eyes. And we've been building tools for him to draw again using his eyes.
HANSEN: Can you tell us in kind of basic language, something that I can understand, about how does it work? First of all, how is the computer connected to the person's eye?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Sure. So, what we've done - it's actually quite simple. We bought a pair of sunglasses and then we've assembled a kind of wire frame that holds a Web cam - it's a kind of small camera - that weve mounted close to the eye and then we've written software that tracks the eye. And then we calibrate with his eye movements on the computer screen.
HANSEN: So, he can do line and color and...
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Exactly. So, he can - and it's very slow, it's very methodical. It's a lot slower, you know, obviously, than drawing with your hands. But he can plot points, and from plotting points, create letters, and from creating letters, create words. And then color the words, shade the words, extrude them in 3D, add different features. And we really were studying his art form, his love of letter forms and trying to make software that would allow him to express himself again.
HANSEN: Can this be developed to help others if you custom made this for the graffiti artist?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Sure.
HANSEN: Is it something that can be applied in general?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, commercial eye trackers are quite expensive. So, you know, to get a device is $10,000 or $15,000, and here's a kind of do-it-yourself kit almost where it's $50 to build an eye tracker. And there are people who have, you know, loved ones who have ALS or have locked-in syndrome or MS or other diseases where having that option at least of a kind of device that you can build for somebody who's in need is really, I think it's really important and really necessary.
HANSEN: Is this something that you can make money with?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: I don't know. I mean, we're not in it to make money. We make money - you know, we do commercial work - this is really coming from the heart.
HANSEN: Zach Lieberman is one of the creators of the EyeWriter. He's also one of the digital bohemians at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.
You can see more at our Web site, NPR.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.