Imagine a world where you could play an instrument, drive a remote-controlled car, or move a wheelchair with your eyes. That’s the world Jon Campbell (’03 Comp. Sci. & Comp. Eng., ’05 MS Comp. Sci.) and his team at Microsoft have made a reality, as they develop technologies people can use to communicate and connect.

As a senior research software development engineer on the Microsoft Research Enable Team, Campbell works directly with people who have been diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease that ultimately results in loss of movement, including speech.

Jon Campbell sits in a wheelchair operated by eye-control. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stands behind watching.
Jon Campbell shows Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella how Eye Control software can operate a remote-control wheelchair. (Courtesy Microsoft)

“We’ve had some really beautiful interactions because they have such a great perspective on the world and their place in it,” Campbell says. “At the same time, there’s also the other side of the coin, which can be tragic.”

While there isn’t yet a cure for ALS, eye-tracking technologies can help improve the quality of life for people living with ALS and strengthen connections between their caregivers, friends, and families.

Just five years ago, Campbell didn’t know much about eye-tracking technology or ALS. After a meeting at work one day, he happened to browse through a list of Microsoft projects. One of the project goals that stood out to him was the need for a wheelchair a user could move with an eye tracker.

The idea on the list originated with Steve Gleason (’00 Busi.), a former NFL player and an advocate for people with ALS, who ten years ago was diagnosed with the disease. Gleason was interested in technology that would make it possible to play with his son, talk more easily with his wife, move a wheelchair independently, and power on and off a Surface tablet independently.

When Campbell and his team created the Eye Gaze Wheelchair as part of Microsoft’s company-wide Hack-A-Thon in 2014, they not only took home first prize but also demonstrated the technology would work in the real world. That was just the start.

After the Hack-A-Thon, Campbell joined the Enable Team full-time, working on a remote-controlled car, drums and pianos, and games, puzzles, and mazes⁠—all played or controlled through an eye tracker.

One area he and his team are focused on now is making it easier for people to gain access to eye-tracking technology, which is often expensive and not widely available.

“We are asking, what are the things that we can do to make it so that if you get a diagnosis, you can get an eye tracker really easily right away,” he says.

The other challenge is standardizing how eye trackers talk to computers and ensuring the trackers respond to differences in a user’s specific traits, such as skin color, eye color, or posture.

Before he graduated from WSU last year, Leif Harfst (’20 Mech. Eng.) had the chance to work on a team of mechanical engineering students and help address some of those challenges. The student team engineered a rig that has anatomically correct eyes and can ultimately be customized to fit a user profile and test different eye trackers. In the coming years, WSU engineering students will build on the new ideas and work to advance the technology.

It’s an ongoing student collaboration with Campbell as their mentor in partnership with WSU’s Gleason Institute, named for Steve Gleason, which aims to improve the lives of patients with neurodegenerative diseases and their caregivers.

“Jon brought us out into the real world,” Harfst says. “You feel like you’re making an impact as far as helping develop a way to test these eye trackers and find something that betters suits a person with certain needs.”

Campbell says his job is to find ways to move forward. While the idea for a particular technology may start with one person in mind, he says, the impact ripples out.

“If we all live long enough, we will all end up with a disability because aging brings with it a myriad of poly-disabilities, whether it’s vision, our ability to grab and hold on to things, hearing, mobility, speech, or vision,” Campbell says. “We all benefit when we serve the needs of people who have differing abilities.”

Test rig for eye tracking remote control
Eye tracker testing rig (Courtesy Leif Harfst)


On the web

Videos: How Eye Control empowers people with disabilities

WSU Gleason Institute