ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a terminal disease that attacks motor neurons, causing patients to lose muscle function. Patients gradually lose their ability to move or speak. Since patients can still move their eyes, advances in eye-tracking technology allow them to operate computer programs, including text to speech software. This eye-tracking technology is the person’s last link to communication—the key to a social or productive life.

However, existing software and hardware is expensive and not accessible to most people with the disease. Led by Professor Dave Bakken ’85, a group of computer science students is working to develop a less expensive and more effective alternative.

The students are working with Team Gleason, a nonprofit organization that helps raise awareness about ALS and provides support to individuals with neuromuscular diseases or injuries. Steve Gleason ’00, a WSU alumnus and former New Orleans Saints football player, is living with ALS.

In addition to high costs, another issue with existing software is how long it takes patients to type with their eyes.

“I can crank out about 20 words per minute,” Gleason wrote in SportsIllustrated.com. “For 4,500 words, that’s almost four hours to finish this column.” This slow typing rate makes it difficult for ALS patients to actively participate in conversations even with the text-to-speech software.

As part of their senior design project, the students are combating that issue by programming eye-tracking software that is predictive. Like a smartphone’s auto-complete function, it anticipates a word or phrase based on a couple of letters. Currently, the students are putting the software on PUPIL, a 3-D printed set of glasses that connects to a computer to translate eye movement into computer action. The program will be open source with no royalties, making it freely available to the public.

By May, the students aim to have prototypes and potentially a tablet that ALS patients could test.

“The scope and impact of this project drew me in,” says senior Calin Scott. “Traditionally senior projects are done for a company, but this one could be life-changing for ALS patients and their families.”

“Making this kind of technology available to all ALS patients is important,” says Gail Gleason, Steve’s mother, who works for the WSU Athletic Department and is providing support for the senior project. “There is so much despair when a person loses their ability to speak to ALS, and assistive technology that gives them the ability to communicate gives them some hope.”

The senior design team traveled to New Orleans in November and visited The Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, a new ALS residential facility that is the second of its kind in the world. Meeting with ALS patients there gave the team a better idea of what factors to consider when working on their project.

“Meeting with Steve was something I will never forget,” says student Forest Clay. “I believe we all came away from the trip inspired to keep working on this project.”

The students have also received support and guidance from ALS patient Eric Valor. With a background in computer science and in the IT industry, Valor tracks developments in technology for ALS and provides support for other patients with the disease.

Working with Valor and spending time with Gleason, the students saw firsthand the difference that predictive typing could make, says Adam Thompson. “Interacting with them really helps us see the whole picture.”

On the web

The Team Gleason eye-tracking and software project (WSU College of Engineering and Architecture)

Team Gleason home page