Hi, please

Is the Eyewriter a tool for creating or rather for reinterpreting a form of creation?

“Part of our interest in technology is on technology that empowers people” -Graffiti Research Lab

Reminder– the Eyewriter project is a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system+custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with ALS paralysis to draw with light projected on large surfaces, using only their eyes. The project was developed to help L.A.-based graffiti artist TemptOne, by a team of artists and software programmers led by Zach Lieberman. The core development team consists of members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab [GRL have a great previous project that’s related--LaserTag].

The technical stuff—how it works

The Eyewriter software has three parts —

  • an eye tracking software
  • a drawing software designed for drawing with eye movements.
  • a system that projects the tag on a physical surface

The softwarehas been developed using openFrameworks, a cross library for creative development also co-founded by Lieberman.

Eye-Tracking Software

“Eye tracking is the process of measuring either the point of gaze (“where we are looking”) or the motion of an eye relative to the head. An eye tracker is a device for measuring eye positions and eye movement.” (Wikipedia) The concept has been around for quite a while—scientists have worked with apparatuses to record the gaze since the early 20th century.

What Lieberman’s software does is interpret the movement of the eye’s pupil as the cursor on the screen of a program for drawing. The pupil is recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses and focuses on one eye, with infrared LEDs that illuminate the eye and create a dark pupil effect. The software reads the image from the camera and interprets the pupil as a black dot positioned on a grid, which can move as a mouse coursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

The software follows this process:

  • It detects and tracks the position of the pupil from the incoming camera or video image,
  • It then callibrates the tracked eye with its position on the computer screen, using the grid to transform the point of the gaze into coordinates.

A person wearing the glasses for the first time has to focus on a sequence of points randomly displayed on the screen. When the sequence is finished, the two sets of data are used to interpolate where the eye positions are located in relation to the screen.

Eye-Drawing Software

After the sequence is completed, the gaze is what operates the tools on the drawing stage. This program allows you to draw, manipulate and style a tag designed on the screen. Instead of point and click, it uses a time-based interface so that the “click” effect is triggered by focusing the eye on a position for a few seconds. This way the user selects/deselects commands and tools, and initiates/finishes the traces on the grid.

The program guides the user through the process of creating a tag, taking him step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. It allows to paste in previous tags and uploads the finished work directly to both the hard drive and a FTP for projection, if desired.  The amount of work that the eyes have to do in order to complete a tag is very straining, so the team’s aim is to keep upgrading the program to reduce the amount of time spent doing unnecessary tasks.


The finalized tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface. To to this, the software uses GFL- Graffiti Markup Language– created by the team specifically for this project. GFL allows the replay of the action as the tag is being “painted” on the wall, instead of just casting a static, finalized image as if it were a slide.

Here you can see TemptOne’s tags taking over L.A.

Where has it gone?

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artist and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art. The code is available at http://code.google.com/p/eyewriter, and they have caught the attention of people interested in donating and collaborating with design and programming.

TemptOne did his first EyeTag on August 2009. Since then, his tags are uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here: http://fffff.at/tempt1/photos/eyetags/ The project has been at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, and was completely re-fabricated in January at the Bombay TechFest 2009.

YouTube Preview Image

And how is the Eyewriter impacting graffiti?

There is no doubt that the Eyewriter provides patients who suffer from ALS with a unique form of expression that allows the creative potential to flow in spite of the physical barriers. The possibilities are endless and the impact huge. But what happens to graffiti when it is executed through the Eyewriter? How is this technique transformed?

To some, graffiti is an art form worthy of display in galleries and exhibitions; to others it is merely vandalism. It is usually employed as a strong form of communication. In any case, it is a form of appropriation of the public space linked to social and political messages and moved by a subversive intention—it is an illegal activity of an invasive nature that has a competitive spirit and seeks fame.

The Eyewriter’s projections with light strip graffiti of its permanent nature and transform it into an ephemeral form of expression. The gang is expanded to include the design and production team, who may play a more important role than the fellow taggers. The act of tagging necessarily loses spontaneity to become a more planned, organized activity. The actual moment of creation is documented and broadcasted—everyone knows who the tagger is, his location and the exact moment of action. By participating in festivals, graffiti is incorporated into an institutionalized arts scene.

Seen through McLuhan’s lens, a medium can’t be dissociated from the message it carries, and the use that is given to any medium is not as transcendental as the fact that “the medium shapes and controls the scale and form of human action.” How is this new media shaping graffiti as a particular form of action? Can we understand it as a process of cultural transcoding in Lev Manovich’s sense— “To transcode is to translate something into another format. Cultural categories and concepts are substituted by new ones, on the level of meaning and/or language.” (The Language of New Media, 47)

I’m having a hard time trying to formulate this question. I guess I’m trying to understand how new media triggers change and transformation that goes beyond its immediate impact on the subject of action. I’m trying to understand, in this particular case, how is technology affecting the message?

Just in: Zach Lieberman has been super kind and accepted to meet this week to talk about the project. I hope to go further into these questions, and any other inquires that you guys can think of are much welcomed and appreciated.

Similar Posts:


  1. juliette b 10:06, Mar 1st, 10

    Really interesting and of the moment I would say.

    I do believe, besides the new technological discoveries, that the way people look at grafitti has changed. It has become an Art and therefore has been a bit deprived of its political meaning.
    You might want to have a look at this exhibition in Meatpacking
    It,s meetin great success these days in NYC.

    I consider the Eyewriter as a new way of creating graffitis. But to better understand the impact of the technology on the message, I would like to know how does this new technology affects the way graffitis are displayed.

  2. juliette b 10:08, Mar 1st, 10
  3. Alexandra 14:13, Mar 1st, 10

    So, maybe I just didn’t understand exactly what you were saying here – but, my view of graffiti and like spray paint on a wall or subway car or other outdoor place where people will see it. Are you taking a more expansive definition of graffiti to just sort of mean “art” in general? Because it seems like the eye tracking software is all digital, right, and the product that someone with ALS would make is in something kind of like Microsoft Paint – and definitely not an actual, physical piece of art and definitely not outside where others could see it. So did I just completely miss what you were trying to say? Please help me figure this out!

  4. Jimena 14:55, Mar 1st, 10

    Your comment made me realize that in my post I omitted explaining an essential part of the project. Let me try to clarify it. The designs made with the Eyewriter are graffiti (and not just art) because of this:
    After the user creates a drawing using the software (similar to MS Paint in its functions but especifically made for tag design) then the final work (the tag) is saved on a FTP and projected onto a phisical surface–ie building, tunnel, subway car, etc). The projection can take place in places far away from the point of creation.

    I completely agree with you in the point you make: an essential part of graffiti is the fact that it’s a way of transgressing space–either private or public, but definitely someone else’s. The important shift here is that the actual image is not permanently painted, but temporarily projected on the wall–therefore, the transgression lasts only as long as the projector is turned on. It is in fact a physical art piece, but its spatial existence is ephemeral.

    Please let me know if this clarified the point! Thanks so much for bringing it up. I’ll also edit the post so that hopefully it is better described.

  5. Alexandra 15:02, Mar 1st, 10

    Hi Jimena,

    That definitely helped me understand better what you meant! So logistically, how and where does the projector get set up and for how long is the image displayed? I am kind of assuming that it is not malicious in the way that most graffiti is, right? Does the owner of whatever building, etc the image is projected onto have a say in the graffiti showing up there? From an economic point of view I’m also wondering how much all this costs to do and how it gets funded.

  6. Jimena 15:57, Mar 1st, 10

    Great to hear that! I updated the post and uploaded a video where you can see the tags being projected in L.A. It’s super cool :)

    Yes, I also want to know how close are the projected tags to graffiti’s original transgressive nature–do they ask just plant the projector and go, or is there any kind of agreement?

    The whole Eyewriter is pretty cheap. The final video on my post shows how they created one from scratch in Mumbay (well, how they searched for the materials-very amusing). There you can see that the stuff needed is pretty basic and cheap. The software is open source and hosted at http://code.google.com/p/eyewriter. I guess the most expensive part is the projector.

    The project is being funded by several institutions: The Ebeling Group and the Not Impossible Foundation, and also Parsons. But besides that, at least 3 people have contacted them through eyewriter.org to offer extra funding (the actual comments are on their discussion forum http://www.eyewriter.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=5)

    @Juliette- I hope this helps to clarify your question too. I guess it was the same issue… Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll definitely check out the exhibit.

  7. nadine 09:14, Mar 2nd, 10

    I like the double nature of your question! It would be great to learn how Temptone or other ALS patients experienced the EyeLaser and get their opinion.
    How did the technology evolve or got adapted to other cases? What happened at the Bombay tech fest? I didn’t get the message of the video…
    How do graffiti artist feel about the technology? On the one hand, the “pirate” character gets lost, but on the other hand, the impact on public space could even be greater.