We’ve spoken at some length previously about the importance of getting the access method right for anyone wanting to make use of technology. The range of options available is enormous which means the scope we have for finding the right one for each person is actually pretty good. In my experience of this particular realm of AT though, there is nothing quite like the mention of ‘EyeGaze’ to either excite or dishearten in equal measure!
This handy overview from Tobii explains, in a nutshell, how the technology works:
On the one hand, it is seen as the ‘cure all’ solution to all of your access needs. Given the relatively little physical exertion required to operate an EyeGaze device, there is often the perceived notion that it will be a suitable and practical solution for anyone who can move their eyes.
On the other hand, there are those who have tried it once, not had great immediate success and have disregarded it as ‘another thing that doesn’t work for me’. Unfortunately, for some, this will be the case, but that is not to say that if you have tried using EyeGaze to control your device and were not especially successful, it definitely won’t ever work for you.
The following ‘Top 5’ are not going to be a list of EyeGaze cameras or software titles for you to go and try (although some of these may feature) but rather a few tips that, in our experience, make things work a little better or make things that bit easier for users of EyeGaze technology.
1. Get the basics right
OK, now we’ve got our first cliche of the day out of the way, this is genuinely the most important message I’m going to share. There are so many factors surrounding the use of EyeGaze that can impact on its ultimate success, beginning with the very basic setup of the user and their equipment. Firstly, the position of the user them-self. The general guideline, as demonstrated here, is that they should be around 60cm from the screen with the camera roughly inline with their chin, the camera will be angled slightly upwards allowing it a clear view of the pupils. In a real-life situation when you won’t necessarily have your tape measure handy (or a big wooden metre stick like you used to see in school) I find that about the length of my forearm is about right.
The perfectly upright position assumed here and the perpendicular alignment of the device is purely to demonstrate relative distance and positioning — I appreciate that such positioning is not possible in many users, in which case the device is simply mounted differently to accommodate this. Have a look at the Rehadapt range of mounts for EyeGaze to get an idea of the options available.
Once this initial position has been established, keeping it is the next consideration. There are various headrests available that support the user in maintaining an optimum head position, either by holding the head in place as shown here. Or by prompting the user to reposition their head themselves. This should always be in consultation with a specialist. It is worth mentioning at this point that it is not necessary to keep your head in exactly the same position for the whole time, EyeGaze cameras offer quite a generous amount of ‘wiggle room’, which means in many cases additional head rests are not required.
What then happens from the shoulders down is equally as important to the success the user can expect. If they benefit from the use of lap, chest, arm or leg straps in maintaining their posture, it is highly likely that their EyeGaze use will be greatly impacted by the absence of these supports. The use of hand anchors to restrict involuntary movement in the upper limbs has proven invaluable to a number of users in our experience. Again, it is not a prerequisite of EyeGaze use that the user must remain perfectly still throughout use, however, this is certainly worth consideration during the initial setup phase.
The positioning of the device itself comes next, as the mounting options are so vast, it is a case of finding the optimum position and sticking to it. In some cases, this may be with the device positioned at an angle, reflecting the preferred head position of the user or positioned higher than in the example above but then angled down. The advantage of this solution is that it allows a degree of gravity assistance in maintaining the user’s head position, as they are able to recline into their headrest rather than holding their head up independently. The proviso that comes with this experimentation is that the distance between the user and the device should remain consistent, regardless of the position, angle etc. Luckily, most EyeGaze software includes setup guides which indicate what is/ is not a good position or distance which takes out a lot of the guesswork.
Once you’ve got a good position, the calibration of the EyeGaze camera should be a more straightforward affair — this is the bit where the camera ‘learns’ where your eyes are and how they move. It is always tempting to turn the device on and have a bash at calibrating straight away without going through all the positioning considerations but I have found that when this is not successful, there is less inclination on the part of the user to go through all the positioning and re-positioning malarkey as they have already ‘failed’ before they have even started.
2. There is absolutely loads you can do with your eyes
I think it is fair to say that the most commonly known application for EyeGaze technology is as a means to communicate using voice output software. I think it is important to mention, though, that the advances in the available software means that there is almost nothing you can do with a standard computer that you can’t achieve using just your eyes. Luckily, the purpose built device/software solutions that exist, are geared up for exactly this. So whilst the user may (or may not) use their device to communicate, they can also use it to access social media, send emails and text messages, control their lights, TVs, blinds etc. complete school work, read books, listen to music, access the internet and most any other thing you think might be possible using a computer! The example of this with which I am most familiar is the Smartbox GridPad Eye with Grid 3. As the name suggests, the interface for this software is all ‘grid based’ so you get everything neatly lined up and ready to use. The device itself has in-built infrared and radio-wave output which means it can control a whole range of associated gadgets. There is a great online community who are busy doing all the hard work in the background which means that if there is something you want your device to be able to do, there’s a good chance someone has created a gridset that does it (if there isn’t, let me know, because spending hours creating Gridsets is my favourite thing to do…after writing overly-verbose blog posts).
I appreciate that solutions like the one above can be prohibitively expensive, it is possible to achieve the same (or at least very similar) results without the need to purchase the entire package. The use of a stand alone eye tracker and any PC running Windows 10 will give you full access to your computer, and with that, an element of voice output communication. Windows now include their own Eye Control settings, which is excellent.
From here, your Google Home or Amazon Echo device will take charge of the environmental control side of things, we have found that they understand the synthesized communication-aid voices just fine. This is by no means a faultless solution, but does demonstrate that there are options out there. It is worth mentioning that you can purchase a license for Grid 3 independently of the Gridpad device — it runs on Windows 10 so will work on any PC, you just won’t get the IR and RW output.
Away from the voice output side of things, typing using your eyes is becoming increasingly accessible, whether that is by using the Windows keyboard via its own Eye Control settings or by pairing your EyeGaze camera with some free eyetracking software and typing into software such as Clicker 7 or DocsPlus — both of which have ‘EyeGaze’ as an access method in their preferences. We have found the latter to be a great solution for completing school work, particularly given all the additional features of Clicker (word banks, predictive text etc.) it has been developed really cleverly with the advent of ‘SuperKeys’ whereby the user does not need to be especially accurate at first look, the area they are looking at is enlarged, thus giving a larger target to aim for. I could go on and on about this but I don’t want people getting bored before they’ve got to Top Tip number 3, I will come back to Clicker in a later post.
3. Find the software that works for you
I think the key to this is to appreciate that using EyeGaze isn’t necessarily as simple as just ‘looking’ but is rather a whole new skill that you’ve probably never needed before now and, as with any new skill, needs honing in order to be utilised to its fullest potential. Luckily, there is a myriad of software available whose sole purpose is exactly that — identifying and practicing each skill you need to make full use of the technology. This example of an all-in-one solution covers everything from beginning to end in terms of the skills you need and the activities that support you in developing them. This type of approach works well, in my experience, for a user for whom understanding the purpose of the technology is difficult. It is a ‘learn by doing’ rather than by being told. At the danger of sounding like a broken record — this is not a prerequisite that everyone must do before they can be successful — if the user understands what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, crack on.
I have already mentioned Grid3, Tobii GazePoint and the Windows Eye Control settings, all of which allow full computer control using EyeGaze. Tobii also offer the aptly named ‘Windows Control’ which is a much more sophisticated approach to computer control. Rather than simply emulating mouse movement then ‘clicking’ once you stop moving, which is what their free GazePoint software does. This lets you dictate what your next action is going to be — right-click, scroll etc. all via a handy sidebar on the screen. This does make things slightly slower as you have to keep telling it what you’re doing next, but gives you infinitely more control over the device.
Ultimately, the software you choose depends on what outcome you’re hoping to achieve, there is not one thing that will work for everything or indeed everyone. If this is a bit of a sticking point for you, do feel free to contact us and we can offer some more bespoke advice, I appreciate that the advice to ‘try everything and see what works’ isn’t especially helpful.
If it just games you’re after, there are some free resources here and here and a whole host of games that can be bought that are specifically designed for EyeGaze, the Tobii website is a great place to start for this.
4. Good housekeeping on your device is important
This is a bit of practical advice for users of Windows devices with EyeGaze. The amount of ‘visual clutter’ as Mike likes to call it on a Windows PC is staggering (he will be writing a whole post about this soon, keep an eye out). You are constantly being notified about what all of your open programs are doing, what Windows is doing in the background, what Windows is going to do ‘later tonight’, which updates that software you forgot you had needs etc etc etc. You’ve then got all the pre-installed games and apps that clog up your start menu, the automatically generated desktop shortcuts to every bit of software you’ve ever installed and a system tray full of ‘update managers’ ‘windows ink workspace’ and ‘optimum sound environment management protocol systems’ (disclaimer, at least one of those wasn’t real). And all of that is before you add in the ‘temp’ folder you created on your desktop when you ran out of space on your memory stick, the image files you saved to desktop so it would be easier to find them when you needed to insert them into a document and all the other bits and pieces that generally clutter your screen.
If you then think about an EyeGaze user navigating this device, the additional demand we are placing on them to not only find what they are looking for, but actively ignore everything else — including the Vegas-style pop-ups that appear every 5 minutes to tell you that you still have no viruses — is massive. The effort involved with controlling a device using EyeGaze is challenging enough as it is, helping to reduce this with a few little settings changes or changes in habit can make a huge difference.
Notifications — press the windows key or start menu and type ‘Notifications and actions settings’ (you actually probably only need to type ‘Notif’ before it knows what you’re after…) and turn them all off. I haven’t had notifications on for years and my computer is yet to implode and I haven’t missed anything important, although I suppose I wouldn’t know if I had…
Then type UAC and set that down to ‘never notify me’ — this just stops your computer from warning you about changes to settings within your account. If you feel a bit funny about this one you can scale it up a bit and ask to be notified ‘sometimes’ if you’re really not sure, perhaps have a chat with someone who you trust to help you decide. Again, I don’t have them on and I think I’m doing OK.
Desktop — I would advise only having shortcuts on your desktop to programs that you use every week. It is common for software to create a shortcut automatically when it is installed, which is many cases is helpful, but going through them and deleting the ones you never use will make everything a little less messy. You can also go down your start menu and just delete everything you don’t want, in some cases (like Minecraft) you can right click an uninstall in completely if you want, don’t do this is if you love Minecraft though.
System tray/taskbar — This is another example of Windows doing you a big favour and taking the choice off you as to what software is running at any given time. A lot of what is in your system tray (which is the bottom right hand corner with your clock) is background stuff that you’ll never open, for the most part, these things won’t affect you or the use of EyeGaze. But from a visual clutter point of view, in tablet mode (which is often how the purpose-built communication aids run), the tray isn’t minimized and you end up with a whole series of icons running along the bottom of your screen. If you press ctrl+alt+delete and choose ‘task manager’ and ‘more details’ you get the option of ‘startup’ which shows you everything that automatically comes on with Windows, including most of the things in your system tray. There will be all sorts of ‘control centres’ and ‘helpers’ in the list so, again, if you’re not sure, ask someone you trust to help you decide what’s best.
5. Make the use of EyeGaze as motivating as possible before expecting it to be functional
This may sound obvious, but if the user doesn’t see the point, why would we expect them to bother?
If, like me, you are in a position where you support users in their use of technology, it is likely that you will know why EyeGaze is a good idea. You’ll see the endgame and all the amazing things that are possible when we get there. But the fact that we have to get there first needs to be at the forefront of your mind when introducing the technology. As a general point, this isn’t specific to EyeGaze necessarily but is a huge consideration in this particular instance. Given that there is no apparent physical, vestibular feedback to activating something using your eyes, we must replace this with a desirable outcome from the very start. If you imagine using an iPhone with the little buzzy haptic feedback you get, even if you don’t do anything practical by pressing the screen, you know you’ve done something and incidentally, it felt funny. The same can be said for typing on a keyboard, moving and clicking a mouse, or pressing a switch — this is not the case with EyeGaze.
So replacing the physical feedback with an outcome that is motivating specifically for that particular user is vitally important. We have found that this varies dependent on the individual but that there is usually something that works for them, once you’ve found your ‘in’ and they can associate their looking in the right place with the outcome you’ve set up for them, the motivation for them to persist with this skill is then greatly enhanced compared with ‘can you pop some more bubbles on the screen?’
Some examples we have found include setting up voice output using vocal smilies. These are a series of words or sounds that are programmed into the synthetic voices you will find on most communication aids (those voices being Rosie, Graham, Harry, Peter, Queen Elizabeth (for some reason) and, to a lesser extent, Rachel) which are said with greater expression. This was set up as a no-fail solution, the user is extremely sociable and spends most of his day smiling at his peers or the adults around him, thus receiving a similar response, his one big motivator being to interact somehow. It was decided that in the first instance, purposeful word choices would be a bit difficult to master, given their context specific nature so instead, our young man can activate one of four cells with as little as 0.4 seconds worth of looking and would output either a goose honking, a police siren, a lion roaring or a very obvious *I want your attention* clearing of the throat, all in the Harry voice. The outcome being that he is guaranteed a reaction of some kind (always positive…) from those around him. So whilst moving around school in his chair, he can be honking away and drawing smiles and laughter and, more often than not, further conversation from others. Although the hope is that there is much more to come from this young man, at the moment, this is what he needs.
Users who are not especially motivated to use their communication aid despite understanding their purpose have found particular motivation in being able to speak to Alexa and get what they want out of that. The simplicity of achieving the same outcome as their siblings, by doing exactly the same thing and without someone having to assist in some way has proven just the thing they needed — be that listening to music or asking Alexa to break wind for them…
We also have a particularly lovely example of a user who, on the surface, didn’t appear motivated by anything we could offer. Music, visual stimulus, voice output, nothing. He is able to make use of EyeGaze, but simply didn’t want to, it didn’t offer him anything. That was until the ButtKicker got involved. In a nutshell, this is a big speaker that isn’t inside the normal speaker box, but instead sends its vibrations through the chair. I won’t bore you with the details (mainly because I don’t fully understand them) but my very clever colleague created a Gridset that causes a sound file to pass through this speaker and give the chair a good ol’ shake. Hey presto! He loved it, we now love it and we have a desire to interact with the EyeGaze device.
There are a million other things to be shared around the use of EyeGaze but I hope the ones I have chosen have been helpful. If you’ve read all the way to the end and I still haven’t given you the information you were after, I’m sorry! Please do get in touch if you’d like any more information.