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“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology.

Early 2009, NY based artist and programmer Zach Lieberman and a group formed by members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab were contacted to help develop drawing software. The hard part? The goal was helping Tony Quan (aka Tempt1), L.A. based graffiti artist, to draw again after 5 years of paralysis caused by ALS.

The team worked on a project based on an eye-tracking system, an adaptive technology device for measuring eye positions and eye movement; which allows people with limited or no bodily movement to use their eyes as controllers instead of the hands. They then developed a drawing program to be used with the eye-tracking system just for Tony’s needs, and the EyeWriter was born.

TemptOne wearingh the EyeWriter --- a tag from the 90s --- his first EyeTag

How it works

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 cursor moves as the pupil gazes over the screen, guiding it over the buttons and commands to select tools and draw. The movements are recorded by a single camera mounted on a pair of glasses, 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 cursor that’s been guided with the eye instead of with the hand.

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 Tag projected on Kyoto's City Hallhim step by step through tracing the letters, their size, stroke, shadowing, coloring, and special effects. The final tags are saved into an FTP to be projected on a surface; only the tag isn’t just a static, finalized image being cast on the wall. Instead, the software repeats the process of how the tag was drawn, giving the effect of it being “live painted” on the wall.


Getting a lot of attention

TemptOne's electronic tag

Tony has been able to do some amazing tag work on the EyeWriter. The designs are very complex and beautiful, and it is getting a lot of attention within the graffiti community beyond LA and the US. Since his first EyeTag on August 2009, his work is being uploaded directly from his Eyewriter to here. The project has been presented at the BLK River Festival in Vienna, CREAM International Festival for Arts and Media in Yokohama, Japan; the Nuart festival in Norway, was completely re-fabricated at the Bombay TechFest 2009, and it just won the interactive category at Design Museum “designs of the year” awards.

DIY assistive technology.

The Eyewriter links two very different types of new media: art, and assistive technology (AT)– technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible, i.e. a wheelchair, a hearing aid, a screen reader or an artificial lung. In general, AT is very expensive and is linked to a costly process that includes highly specialized physicians, hospitalization and health insurance.

The Eyewriter offers an affordable alternative of DIY hardware and software that is open source. The price difference is huge: regular eyetracking systems go for no less than $7,000, like the Arrington Research Monocular Nystamus Laptop System, a device that consists of almost the same elements as the EW and that costs $7,998 . The Eyewriter can be built for less than $50, depending on the quality of the material for the headset and the place where you buy the stuff.

Commercial tracker: $7,988 vs. EyeWriter: less than $50

Who is working at it right now?

Zach's class at Parsons working on their EW

The Ewewriter is an ongoing project under development. Zach’s students at Parson’s Collaboration Studios (collab.eyewriter.org) are working on it for the whole term, bringing different ideas and upgrades.

Just recently, one of the class members managed to control the computer’s cursor on the screen with the EW. This means a lot since it brings the EW a step forward to being useful for existing apps beyond the drawing program.

The main question: can it influence the field of assistive technology?

The answer is an absolute yes. The Eyewriter is gaining attention of AT developers, sellers and users alike. A lot of networking is going on around the project:

  • The developing team at eyewriter.org has been contacted by several hundreds of interested people.
  • Most of them are people that would like to use it for a loved one who is suffering from ASL or other kind of paralysis.
  • They have also been contacted by several ASL foundations.
  • There are a lot of people who would like to cooperate with the project, either by jumping in the design and programming, or with economic support.
  • The Veteran’s Authority also contacted Zach interested in the project, and he’ll be meeting with them next April in DC.
  • Mark Surabian, AT expert who has the only internet café for disabled people in NYC also contacted them and visited the class at Parsons.They’re also meeting with the people at the “Open Prosthetics Project” at Duke

    Robotagger uses the same language

    University.

  • The “Graffiti Markup Language” that was created for the Eyewriter has now been used to develop the Robotagger, a robotic arm that can reproduce tags with marker directly on a surface.

What are the EyeWriter’s limitations?

“I want an eyetracker that works just like a mouse, or at least like my headmouse – able to move freely between any programs, navigating buttons, text, sliders, keyframe rubberbanding, continuous controller data, all WITHOUT modifying the applications. I love my tools and I’m going to miss them, no matter what…”

-NuJack, comic and multimedia artist.

The project is receiving a lot of feedback: through TemptOne’s use, the student’s work, and the suggestions from outside people that have contacted Zach after trying to develop their own.

-The main challenge for the EyeWriter is that, until now, you can’t get it to control other software; it can only be used with the drawing program that was designed for. This means that it can’t substitute a headmouse, –which is what NuJack uses for now, since he has full movement of his head– and that can navigate you through any kind of application. Using the eyes for complex programs (such as Photoshop) is almost impossible—the EW needs larger buttons in order to adapt to the eye’s jittery movements, never as precise as the hand’s.

-There are a lot of people interested in the project, but as Zack Lieberman explained, it is very hard to manage a community that is very diverse in what it has to offer, the level of expertise and is also geographically disperse.

-Even though the software can be understood by a tech expert, it needs to be made even easier and more user friendly, not as intimidating.

What comes next?

-Improve both the hardware and software. The headset is designed for Tony, who can’t move his head. The next step is to adapt it so that people who can move their heads can also use it. This means finding a way to calibrate both the pupil and the head movement.

-Actively work with a ALS patient in NYC. That will help the development since Tony is in LA and it makes it so much harder to get immediate feedback.

-DIY Eyewriter kits—once the device is substantially improved, the developers would like to put together kits that contain all the necessary materials to build the EW. That would allow for a much lower unit price since the materials would be bought in bulk and they would be of proven quality.

Conclusions

“When Mark Surabian visited the class, he said something I personally found very touching, that the key to assistive tech is “empathy not sympathy”

–Zach Lieberman

That is the main challenge with the EyeWriter: to truly understand what the patient needs in order to develop assistive technology that effectively covers the necessity. It has been very successful for TemptOne’s tagging needs because it was designed exactly for him. As NuJack puts it, “when they went to make TEMPT1′s graffiti rig, they were building it from the ground up…that’s why it works!” Zach agrees with that: every case of paralysis is different and every patient has different communication needs.

The long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and develop eyetracking systems. The idea is to make the EW code so accessible and the hardware so easy to build that each person can adapt it to their patient’s needs.

“Without the proper team in place i fear endless frustration. it may well be that in a year’s time i will be corresponding with you using a (limited) eyetracker, reduced to relating solely through text, my multimedia empire nothing but a fond memory.”

-NuJack

Zach demonstrates the EW in his Brooklyn office

Creative Commons License
“Empathy, not sympathy”: DIY, custom-made assistive technology. by Jimena Lara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cultureandcommunication.org.

Will the Eyewriter influence the field of Assistive Technology?

So, after my excitement over the Eyewriter and its possibilities as artistic technology toned down a bit (and Mushon’s useful input), I focused my research on a different angle: its great possibilities as a communication tool for people that have lost this ability, either by ALS or any other kind of paralysis.

It links two very different types of new media: art and assistive technology (AT)– technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. i.e. a wheelchair, a hearing aid, a screen reader or an artificial lung. The Eyewriter has linked the subversive, colorful, cool world of graffiti with the often dry and no-nonsense field of medical technology. Not your usual combination.

In general, high-tech medical hardware belongs to the very expensive world of state of the art health care. As we know, this is not widely available and is linked to a costly process that includes highly specialized physicians, hospitalization and health insurance.

The Eyewriter is based on the eye tracking system, a piece of AT that already existed. One of the most prestigious manufacturers of eye tracking systems is Arrington Research, a company that used to be part of a technology transfer initiative at the MIT. One of their products is the Monocular Nystamus Laptop System, which looks somewhat like this:


Arrington Research's system

In essence, not extremely different from the Eyewriter: a camera mounted on a headset, connected to software that is installed on a computer (not included) that records and interprets the pupil movements.

EyeWriter diagram-- formed by cheap components

But there is a huge difference– the price.

Arlington Research's eye tracking, $7,998 Pricey? Yes.

The Monocular system goes at $7,998. The Eyewriter, on the other hand, can be (almost) homemade—you need someone who has knowledge in programming (easier to find and cheaper than a specialized physician), a webcam ($20), a pair of sunglasses ($5), developed camera film ($10), wire, tape & other basic hardware items ($15)—all can go for less than 50 bucks. The team that developed the software has made it open source and posted some great video tutorials on their site.

The Eyewriter definitely has gotten a lot of attention from the graffiti community, and it’s also making some good noise in the medical/A.T. world, as well as with ALS patients.

Zach Lieberman has shared some great news: that several eye-tracking companies and some great experts in assistive technology are already in contact with them [such as the ITU GazeGroup, a research group at the IT University of Copenhagen that focuses in finding accessible alternatives for gaze tracking systems and bring them to the m ainstream] as well as some ALS foundations and a lot of potential users and their families.

NewJack


A very well known case of ALS is Stephen Hawking’s, although I think he hasn’t heard about the Eyewriter… yet :) But NewJack has, a  film editor/ video artist/ photographer/ painter/ musician who was recently diagnosed with it. He has continued doing all of his amazing work aided by AT: visual art, video, original composition, comics, and a long, impressive etcetera. He has contacted Eyewriter.org and is one of the many patients who are sharing their ideas for further developing the project.

I have now contacted both NewJack and the GazeGroup, and hope to get direct input soon . I’ll also be meeting Zach Lieberman in the following days. As you can see, the live reporting for this project isn’t so direct since stuff is happening mainly outside the web (and outside NYC) and being known about after it has happened. Still, I’m on it and will surely get some more answers… stay tuned.

graffiti from a distance– I see, therefore I create.

new media art

Artists have always been amongst the most rapid adopters -and adapters- of the new. The emerging media technologies all the way back from the printing press in the 16th century to film and video in the 20th were welcomed by the likes of Goya, Dürer, Buñuel, Nam June Park and Andy Warhol and quickly incorporated into their work, coining new artistic languages and settinga aesthetic boundaries to cross.

According to Wikipedia,

New media art is a genre that encompasses artworks created with new media technologies,including digital art, computer graphics, computer animation,
virtual art, Internet art, interactive art technologies, computer robotics, and art as biotechnology.

Zachary Lieberman is a new media artist based in NYC. According to himself he uses technology in a playful way to explore the nature of communication and the boundary between the visible and the invisible. He creates performances, installations, and on-line works that investigate gestural input, augmentation of the body, and kinetic response. He collaborates with Golan Levin, and recently they were nominated for Wired’s artist of the year award.

Take a look at his recent work: he helped create visuals for the facade of the new Ars Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria; wrote software for an augmented reality card trick, helped develop a 3d drawing tool and a typeface designed by a racing car’s tracks on the asphalt. In addition to making artistic work, Lieberman teaches graphics programming at Parsons School of Design.

eyeWriter

The project that I want to focus goes like this— In 2003, Tony Quan, LA graffiti writer, publisher and activist was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS) which resulted in total physical paralysis, except for his eyes. In August of 2009, Lieberman and a team of collaborators from London, Hong Kong, Madrid, and Amsterdam, met in California and began to work on something that would allow Tony, aka Temptone, to draw again.

They developed a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system + custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with paralysis to draw with light projected on large surfaces, using only their eyes. They worked for 10 days in a design that consists roughly of this:

EyeWriter diagram-- formed by cheap components

Before Tempt could start tagging, the system had to recognize his unique eye-alphabet. Check out the process.

In August 2009 TemptOne drew his tag again after more than 5 years without drawing. You can check out the video of the first eyetag on my last post.

phase 2

The next phase of the project began last August. 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.

Kyoto City Hall- tagged

Since the first eyetag, TemptOne has been tagging nonstop—and since digital tagging erases the geographical limitations of physical graffiti, his art has gone way beyond L.A. Take a look at his work in Kyoto’s City Hall

next step

I want to learn what is going on with EyeWriter— how has the project evolved? How has it influenced other new media artists? What are the limitations of the medium? How does it allow the artist from an aesthetic perspective? If it is open source, who else has worked on it, and how have they used it?

I will, of course, try to contact Zack Lieberman.  Stay tuned.