Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
2 July 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

Innovative eye-tracking technology could transform communication for those paralysed

An Israeli start-up backed by predictive-keyboard-pioneer SwiftKey is offering hope for severely disabled individuals.

By Ajit Niranjan

How do you type if you can’t use your hands? Dictation might be your first thought, but for sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases, this isn’t always an option. Dysarthria – severe speaking difficulty – is a common symptom of many disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntingdon’s disease, which can render communication almost impossible.

To combat this, an Israeli duo has developed an innovative solution. Click2speak is an exciting new piece of software that could have a huge impact for paralysed people – it allows the user to type on a virtual keyboard using nothing more than eye-movements.

Gal Sont is the inspirational figure behind the tech. Described by co-founder Dan Russ as a reckless adrenaline-lover, Sont’s energetic lifestyle changed in 2009 when he was diagnosed with ALS – the most common type of motor neurone disease. It causes nerve cells in the spine and brain to degenerate, preventing voluntary muscle movement and progressively paralysing the entire body. There is no known cure.

After being diagnosed with the disease, I contacted other individuals who suffer from ALS at different stages, and began to learn about the different challenges that I would face as my disease progressed. I also learned about the tech solutions they used to cope with these challenges.

 The most basic challenge was typing, which is done using a virtual on screen keyboard, a common solution shared by not only individuals affected by ALS, but a variety of illnesses such as brain trauma, MS [multiple sclerosis] and stroke victims. The fully featured advanced on-screen keyboards, again proved relatively very expensive (starting at $250), so I decided to develop the ultimate on-screen keyboard on my own.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

This was a bit easier than it sounds – the maths and computer science graduate has been programming for decades. As his situation deteriorated and he lost the ability to use a mouse, Sont purchased an advanced eye-tracking camera to allow him to code Click2speak with his eyes. Here’s how it looks from the user’s point-of-view:

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

On its own, this technology is actually nothing new. Fellow ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking has used facial recognition software to track cheek and eyebrow movements as well, in order to spell out words. What makes this technology so sophisticated is the inclusion of tech from the highly successful Swiftkey Android keyboard – its AI technology learns to predict his words based on sources like texts, Facebook messages and tweets. Sont used it to greatly speed up the process of typing words without hands.

This started a new journey that introduced me to SwiftKey’s revolutionary technologies and how we customize them to our specific needs. I reached a first version of our keyboard and distributed it to friends who also suffer from ALS. They gave us invaluable feedback through the development process, and they all raved about its time saving capabilities and accuracy and how it makes their lives a little easier.”

The last couple of months have been exciting in terms of technological developments – we’ve seen Google and Apple hold conferences showcasing driverless cars and smartwatches – but this niche development seems to pack more punch. The team are looking to quickly get a first version out on the market as soon as possible, and eventually ensure all paralysed individuals can have easily affordable access to this sort of assistive technology.