While a number of location-based application services like Gowalla and Whrrl dominated the buzz at the South by Southwest conference again this year, a team of five collaborators was introducing what is arguably a far more important technology to attendees: the Eyewriter, a new, $50 eye-tracking device designed to provide people suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, with a way to express themselves creatively.
Created expressly to help L.A.-based graffiti artist Tony Quan, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, the Eyewriter’s first iteration is remarkably simple: think off-the-shelf sunglasses, a small Web camera, and open-source software that was written to track Quan’s eye’s movement, enabling him to plot points and eventually create words, as well as to fill those words in, blow them up, project them in 3D, and more.
A second iteration should be completed this spring, according to one of Eyewriter’s designers, 33-year-old Zach Lieberman, a New York-based artist with an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design, where he now teaches a class. (This semester, the class is working on improving the Eyewriter, fittingly.)
We talked earlier today about that effort, and where the Eyewriter goes from here.
Your core development team — including Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Theo Watson and James Powderly –is scattered around the world. How did you collectively manage this project, and why?
Right, I live in New York, Evan is in Paris, James is in Seoul, Chris is in Spain and Theo is in Boston. Actually, everyone went to Parsons and in fact they were my students, though now I learn from them. But we’re all big into open-source to make our work and we publish tools to help other artists.
We met Tony through a couple in L.A., the Eblings [who run the Ebling Group, a commercial production company]. They were involved in a fundraiser for Tony to pay for some of his medical expenses and also to raise money for an eye tracker for him. Later, they were at a conference with Evan and James, who created the Graffiti Research Lab [which points graffiti artists to open-source technologies for “urban communications”] and the Eblings thought it would be great to connect them to this graffiti artist who can’t do what he loves anymore.
The technology is still fairly rudimentary. Are you talking with investors? Do you have ambitions to commercialize the Eyewriter?
I wouldn’t say we’re interested in investors per se. We’re artists; we’re not necessarily in the business of making products. In fact, we’ve already been in touch with some universities and some researchers who are looking to improve it.
What we really want is to make an extremely low-cost device. We hear from a lot of people who have a loved one who could use the device. Our big hope is that eye-tracking companies will see the Eyewriter and open-source eye trackers and lower their costs, or think about producing much lower-cost devices. Today, the cheapest devices for people suffering from ALS are $9,000 and they often cost as much as $20,000, and they could be significantly less expensive because of how these devices are paid for. They are arbitrarily expensive.
Sounds like you’ve found a second calling. Do you think more assistive technologies or devices are in your future?
The majority of what we do are art projects, trying to create magic for people. But we’ve looked into software for disabled children and children with autism — very simple, reactive software. That’s a very rich place and something we’ve been talking about as a next step.
We’ve also learned about a lot of other projects in the realm of assistive tech because of other developers we’ve met through the Eyewriter. It’d be great to bring those projects together through a meta project to promote the work that people have been doing in this field.
In the meantime, how can someone buy the Eyewriter today? Is there a kit?
At the moment, the way to buy it is to purchase the individual pieces and assemble them yourself by visiting instructables.com. But we’re looking into making kits and pre-building them because while we’re used to assembling and disassembling intricate things like cameras, there are parts of the process that might be a little complicated for a lot of people. Hopefully, when we publish a second iteration of the design, later this spring, we’ll have a cleaner set of tutorials, improved code, and a kit that people can order.