Eye-Writing Gives a Hand to Disabled
Examples of the drawings people produced using a hands-free program that tracks eye movement.
CREDIT: Lorenceau et al., Current Biology
A new computer program allows people with dexterity impairments to sign documents in their own handwriting — or eye-writing, as it were. The program, which tracks users' pupils as they trace numbers and letters in cursive and saves the writing on-screen, may also someday help kids who have dyslexia or ADHD, the program's creator, Jean Lorenceau, said.
The greatest challenge in developing the program wasn't the programming, said Lorenceau, a scientist in the brain and spinal cord research center at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Instead, it was getting people to trace smooth lines with their eyes. Without something to track, such as a bird flying across the sky or cars moving in traffic, the human eye naturally jumps around and can't trace letters or other shapes.
"And so if you are in front of your computer and nothing moves on the screen, you cannot move the eye to make a particular figure or pattern," Lorenceau told InnovationNewsDaily by phone. "You would maybe think you are doing it, but you are not."
His solution was to train people's eye muscles using an optical illusion that researchers have known about since the 1970s. No one has thought of using it to train people's eye movements before, Lorenceau said. He liked the idea that something "funny and fanciful" — but apparently useless — that was discovered decades ago is now finding a practical application.
Lorenceau created his own version of the illusion, in which two still images, when flashed in succession, appear to be one object moving smoothly and continuously. A German researcher named Michael Bach has one example of the illusion on his website.
When people see movement in the illusion, they're creating smooth eye movements, just as they would if they were watching a bird's flight, Lorenceau said. But because they're sensing movement in an optical trick, not in real life, they're more conscious of what they're doing and can eventually learn to produce smooth, eye-guided lines voluntarily, Lorenceau added.
He tried out his training program on six volunteers and himself. It can be tiring to learn, he said, but he and four of his study volunteers eventually learned to write numerals and cursive letters while aiming their eyes at the screen of a computer equipped with the eye-writing program he wrote. He published their eye-drawn writings today (July 26) in the journal Current Biology. [Eye Movements Control New Laptop Computer]
Two of his volunteers never learned to voluntarily create smooth eye movements. Finding out why they couldn't learn to control their tracking eye movements would be a good question for brain scientists to study, he said. It may be that their eyes aren't as sensitive to movement, he wrote in his paper.
Although he doesn't know for sure because he hasn't studied it, Lorenceau doesn't believe eye-writing is harmful to the eye. "People use and move their eyes all the time," he said. "I'm not asking the muscles to do things that they never do."
An eye-writing program can supplement other hands-free technologies for people who are paralyzed by diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Lorenceau said. He has just received a grant to try his program with ALS patients, he said.
The programs that dexterity- or motility-impaired people use now often require users to look at letters arrayed on-screen and blink to select the letters they want. Such programs are much easier to learn than Lorenceau's eye-cursive, but he thinks his program has a personal touch people will like.
"When you [hand] write, you have your own personality and this is what my device allows," he said.
The eye-training method may also help kids with ADHD or dyslexia, who often look around the room with an unusually active gaze, to learn to control their gaze, Lorenceau said.
Although people don't often think about how they move their eye muscles, it's a skill they can learn, just as people learn to control their muscles in specialized ways for sports, he says. "It is like learning to surf on a wave. Like playing tennis," he said. "Like writing with your hand."