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Spring 2012

Changing the Future

by Sally Logue Post and John Davis

Texas Tech Researchers Develop Affordable Eye Tracking, Assist Devices

Ryan, age 13, is intelligent and articulate, but physical limitations keep him from using the computer. Until he began using EyeGuide™ Assist, he had to use his chin, or a pencil in his mouth, to click on links or type. Watch Ryan use EyeGuide™ Assist. Video © Grinbath, LLC.

Meet the Researcher

Brian Still

Brian Still is director of the Usability Research Lab at Texas Tech and associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Watch Still discuss the significance of the EyeGuide™ Assist.

Sometimes solving one problem can create a very different opportunity. Brian Still needed eye tracking technology in his Usability Research Laboratory (URL) at Texas Tech University, but the existing technology was too expensive.

Still’s solution: build his own. But in the process he and Nathan Jahnke, the URL’s assistant director, discovered an easy-to-use, cost-effective method for individuals without the use of their arms to move a computer cursor with their eyes.

Eye tracking allows usability experts to see where a person’s eye is moving on a website. The information allows Web developers to create a better and more effective user experience.

“Since we didn’t have the $30,000-$40,000 to buy a product and we weren’t totally happy with the free software that’s out there, and since Nathan and I both had backgrounds in writing computer code, we thought we’d try to build something ourselves,” Still said.

Jahnke, who also is a doctoral student, began work creating what the two hoped would be an inexpensive eye tracking device. But it wasn’t long before they began to see another application.

“The same thing that allows the eye to be tracked also can, with additional programming, allow the eye to move the mouse,” Still said. “So, we have not just invented an eye-tracker, but a device that will offer millions of disabled users who have limited or no functionality in their hands the ability to navigate the Web or use desktop software with just their eyes.”

Their next step was contacting Texas Tech’s Office of Technology and Commercialization for help with patents and forming a company.

Finding Ryan

Still and Jahnke debuted EyeGuide™ Assist in January at the 2012 Assistive Technology Industries Association in Orlando, where they met a special education director from a Lubbock area school. She introduced them to Ryan, one of her students.

Ryan has no use of his arms and uses his chin or a pencil held in his mouth to operate the computer. With the use of the EyeGuide™ Assist product, Ryan’s mother, Nancy, said she sees a huge change in her middle school-aged son.

“With the EyeGuide™ Assist, Ryan has really taken off, it has given him so much more self-confidence,” she said. “He had to type with a pencil in his mouth and used his chin to operate the mouse pad on the laptop at school. Now he can do so many more things independently. It has really improved his school work.”

Nancy says the device has helped Ryan in another, maybe more important, way. “When Brian approached us to test the device, it was as if Ryan felt like someone was acknowledging that he was important, and that has been tremendous for Ryan,” she said.

Still calls running into a Lubbock-area teacher in Florida a serendipity moment, one that validates what he and Jahnke and others involved in his company are trying to accomplish.

“What Ryan’s success tells us is that this can be impactful to Ryans all over the world,” he said. “He represents a user who has no ability to use his hands, and there is a wide spectrum of users of all sorts who I think we can impact with this technology.”

Ensuring Versatility

It also was important to Still and his team that both technologies be both accessible and affordable. With their assistive product, a user doesn’t have to calibrate it to a specific computer. It’s usable on any computer, whether Mac or PC. It’s mobile, allowing a user to move from computer to computer. And it can be used by people who wear glasses. The EyeGuide™ products are a simple elastic band that fits around the head with a miniature camera attached. The camera points at the eye and is activated by any sound that the user makes. If the user cannot vocalize, he or she can blink or the device will also work if the eye hovers over a spot.

Texas Tech researchers found little evidence the contamination of dune sand by the oil industry has hurt the lizards.

Texas Tech researchers Nathan Jahnke and Brian Still created EyeGuide™ Assist to be both accessible and affordable.

Still said it is also much more affordable than other devices currently on the market.

“Many of the technologies out there now require you to buy their computer along with the assistive device,” Still said. “We wanted something that would only cost a few hundred dollars, not thousands. As researchers and teachers, we want the product to be good, and people shouldn’t have to pay outrageous amounts for the product.”

To ensure that the products remain true to his goals of accessibility and affordability, Still and his colleagues chose to form their own company and do their own production rather than sell the product to another company. He credits the Office of Technology and Commercialization with helping get his company, Grinbath, established and the patents for both the eye tracking and assist products.

“I think that normally you sell your technology, but we didn’t want to give up the control,” Still said. “We didn’t want someone to buy either product and then charge outlandish amounts for them. That would defeat the purpose.”

For Jahnke, working on the EyeGuide™ products was a totally new experience. “It was a steep learning curve for me. I didn’t know much about eye tracking technology, and I wasn’t sure we could do this. This was not what I had intended to do while I was working on my doctorate, but I have to say now that this is my favorite thing I’ve done in my life.”

Despite some reservations that each kept to himself during the development, Still and Jahnke continued to work–finally reaching a point where they needed funding if they were to continue their start-up company.

“Again it was serendipity,” Still said. “My son plays football on a friend’s team. We were talking about our product, and he said he had some friends, cotton farmers, who might be interested in investing. So we set up a meeting.”

EyeGuide™ Assist: MyFoxORLANDO.com

Nathan Jahnke was featured in a video on Fox TV in Orlando, Fla., about the invention of EyeGuide™ Assist. The new product, invented with support from the Usability Research Lab in the Department of English, was unveiled at the 2012 meeting of the Assistive Technology Industries Association. The brief article and video can be viewed here.

Still expected a couple of men to show up and was shocked when 30 farmers got off the elevator in the English building. “I told these guys that there was a lot of risk in investing in us; we could fail,” said Still. “One of the farmers just looked at me and said, ‘Son, I’m a cotton farmer.’ I guess they know a lot about risk and were looking at this as a way of diversifying their portfolio. Without the funding from those folks, we would not have been able to continue.”

Looking Ahead

So far the project progress is encouraging. Grinbath is selling the EyeGuide™ eye-tracking software around the world and the newly launched EyeGuide™ Assist is attracting attention.

The creation of the EyeGuide™ products happened in a hurry–Still and Jahnke began working on the technology in January 2010. Despite the daily pressures of running a company while continuing to teach and run his lab, Still keeps his enthusiasm.

“I haven’t quite my day job yet,” he laughs. “We’re past the R&D part now and actually making and selling units. So I think we could make it. Start-ups fail all the time, but I think we have a good product, and we’ll be OK. It is just amazing to me to think that some English teachers in Lubbock, Texas, have been successful in creating a high-tech start-up company. That’s cool.”

Grinbath is not stopping here. Still and his team are now developing a mobile digital device with real-time data capabilities intended for gaming, research and other applications. Because the eye is so much faster than the hand, the device also may have applications for gamers to increase the speed and proficiency of their game.

Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University. Images courtesy Neal Hinkle.

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