Have you ever wanted to type on your Windows computer without using your hands or your voice? A growing number of people are controlling the computer using little more than small head movements. This technology, commonly referred to as “Eyegaze,” benefits users with motor issues that prevent them from operating a computer in ways that are considered basic to many people. Such users may include those with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Cerebral Palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy.
In its early days, eyegaze technology was incredibly expensive. The only way most people who could most benefit from this technology could acquire it was by participating in medical or therapeutic studies where the cost of the technology was covered.
Now, you can download an eyegaze interface program to your Windows computer for free. Actually, Camera Mouse is nearing its 10th anniversary as a freely available program, thanks to the people at Boston College. When paired with on-screen keyboard software, everything that you could do with the keyboard and mouse can be done with your computer’s webcam, just by moving your head.
So, where can you get on-screen keyboard software? In Windows, you already have it. The one that comes with Windows is perfectly adequate. In fact, the on-screen keyboard built-in to Windows 10 includes word prediction capability. This can make eyegaze typing significantly faster. Eyegaze typing typically works by registering a “click” after the mouse cursor stays in the same space for a set period of time (“dwell time”).
Simpler on-screen keyboard software is also available. Two programs that are designed to work well with Camera Mouse and incorporate a text-to-speech option are Midas Touch and Staggered Speech.
I am typing this sentence using eyegaze and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard.
Yes, it’s slow. That sentence took me over one minute to type. But for a person who cannot use a standard keyboard or speech-to-text technology, typing a sentence in 60 seconds is a gateway to a fundamental communication option that opens up meaningful participation in the world. Once a user gets more practice with eyegaze technology, they generally will want the “dwell time” reduced from one or two seconds to a half-second or less. If I were to practice, and tweak the software settings, I could soon get to a point where I can reproduce that sentence in under a minute.
And, thanks to the technology, if I store a commonly-used sentence in a memory bank, I can reproduce the sentence in far less time than it would take me to type it conventionally, with my 55wpm fingers.
So, why would you want to use Camera Mouse and the Windows on-screen keyboard? Here are three great reasons!
- The Lure of the Gadget – Some people avoid unfamiliar technology because of a fear of it not doing what is expected. Some people, on the other hand, just can’t resist trying a technology just to see what it does. If you’re the type who has a natural curiosity for technological wizardry, eyegaze is a super-cool interface to try out! Camera Mouse doesn’t disable your built-in keyboard and mouse, so any time you need to bail out and shut off the eyegaze tracker, you can do so easily.
- Contribute to advancement – Eyegaze technology – and other assistive technologies – continue to get better because of the feedback developers get from users who try their software and give them feedback. Most advancements in software design and capability started with a user who said, “Y’know, it would be great if this could….”
- Build Empathy – If you ever encounter a person who relies on such technology, you will have first-hand experience with what they deal with – both the struggle and the possibilities. Also, should you happen to work with an individual who has difficulty using typical computer interface controls (e.g., keyboard and mouse), you can more effectively introduce and support the use of eyegaze technology for that individual. Supplementary or alternative interfaces such as eyegaze give people with significant motor impairments a way to use computers to do many things that typical people take for granted.
For the college course I am teaching, I plan to have each of my students take a turn at using Camera Mouse and an on-screen keyboard to type a sentence. I will not be grading them on how fast they type the sentence. I will not be grading them on how few mistakes there are. I don’t even care (much) if they remember the name of the program we will use or if they practice and get better at it. My goal is for them to build empathy for the kids they will one day work with who either rely on eyegaze technology to effectively communicate, or who could significantly benefit from such technology. When the rest of the group is in a typing class, there is no good reason why a student who does not have the physical capacity to type on a standard keyboard should be given some alternate activity that has nothing to do with typing.
But, making that a reality in our schools will require the efforts of educators who demand equity and excellence for every student, regardless of any disability label they’ve been given.