Life changing technology for all
Life changing. It’s a term we have to use far too often, typically to describe a negative event we have to come to terms with.
I found myself in this position when my mum was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in November 2019, a cruel disease which is debilitating, relentless and irreversible. At the time all I knew of the condition was from the work depicting Stephen Hawking’s life, and the ALS ice bucket challenge from 2014; although admittedly I didn’t learn much from the latter.
Motor Neurone Disease causes specialized nerves in the brain and spinal cord to break down affecting mobility, whilst victims retain their full mental acuity and memory, leaving them debilitated and frustrated unable to use their body and communicate.
We live in a digitally connected world, some of us conscious that we spend far too much time on social media, but what if that digital world was stripped away from you overnight? Worse still, what if you were unable to communicate effectively with anyone around you?
Fortunately, I believe I have a somewhat unique perspective of the world because of my role at Wirehive as an Azure Cloud Solution Architect, specialising in Data and AI. In my view of the world I see technology enabling incredible things, miracles unfolding in front of my very eyes.
Two stories that have particularly inspired me through my work with Microsoft technologies are:
Within seconds of the diagnosis, my mind had gone to work. I spend every working day solving problems, so I was confident there was something I could do to improve the quality of the life my mum has remaining.
Motor Neurone Disease victims eventually rely on advanced eye-tracking systems to be able to communicate with the world around them. Support from charities for these devices is possible but funding and equipment is limited, so devices are not available to all.
Luckily, I didn’t have to spend thousands of pounds or weeks of research and development. In fact, I didn’t even write any code.
Built into every Windows 10 device is the most effective and user-friendly eye control tool I have tested. Coupled with a simple and relatively cheap eye-tracking device (originally designed for gaming), it enables users to interact with a full Windows computer environment seamlessly.
How it works
Within 2 days of diagnosis I had ordered and received the components I needed to build the solution:
Microsoft Surface Pro
Tobii Eye Tracker 4C, and
various tablet holders, grips and mounts
Any Windows 10 device would fully support the eye tracking, but the Microsoft Surface Pro device provides the full power of Windows in a tablet format, which was perfect to ensure it was portable and easy to position.
The Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is designed for use by gamers wanting to track and display their eye movements to audiences over a streaming service such as twitch.
It is a cost-effective solution, and unlike the more expensive eye-tracking hardware, it allows for freedom of head movement and connects below the device screen or monitor rather than close to the eye.
What surprised me the most was that Windows 10 already had the best eye control software baked in. Even in my world where I am conscious of Microsoft’s focus on accessibility, I did not expect it to be so simple or so widely distributed.
With the eye control option enabled in the Windows 10 settings, a toolbar appears allowing users to gaze at options and dwell on them to select.
This interface makes it simple to perform mouse clicks, scroll, type with a keyboard, even speak through an on-screen keyboard with text-to-speech.
Whilst the solution was simple from a technology point of view, the result was no mean feat. The real impact of simply being aware of the possibilities mean that my mum now has the ability to communicate effectively and be confident that she can continue communicating as her condition deteriorates.
Furthermore, access to use social media platforms reconnects her to the digital world that many of us have become reliant on to socialise and stay in touch.
I'll never forget her first time using the eye-control: within minutes of using it she had already sent the most lovely kind-hearted message to my sister on Facebook Messenger, who has been there to support her throughout her battle with the disease.
I'm incredibly grateful to the wonderful people at Microsoft who made this possible, from the passionate leadership for defining this culture and the accessibility team for building truly life-changing technology.
I’m proud to be a part of enabling some positive life-changing news.
I hope by sharing this story I help others start to question what technology could be doing to make their loved one’s lives easier.