Czech team invents simple and fast device to make computers work for the disabled


Over the past decade, the personal computer has become an essential instrument in our everyday lives. Add an internet connection to your computer and you don't even need to leave your home. But what about those with a physical disability who can't use a PC? Scientists around the world have been straining their little grey cells to find a simple way of helping them - but it was a small team in Prague who came up with a very clever little system.

Lenka LhotskaLenka Lhotska This is what it usually sounds like when I'm writing on my computer...[sound of keyboard]...and this is what it sounds like with a system tailor-made for the physically disabled who cannot use a mouse or write on the keyboard... [silence]...can you guess what I'm using to control my PC? Believe it or not - I'm using my eyes.

The memory recorder or the I4Control system was developed by a small group of people at the Czech Technical University's Cybernetics department. Lenka Lhotska was one of them:

"The original idea came from a colleague who works with disabled children. When she saw how difficult it is for them to control a computer, we started to discuss ways to enable these children and, of course, adults with similar disabilities to use computers."

So how exactly does it work? Well, it's easy, light, and all you need is a pair of glasses - or actually just the frame. Prof. Vladimir Marik explains:

"You have a small micro-camera attached to your glasses, which watches your eye movement and you can learn to control the cursor on the computer by your eye-movement. So the camera processes the information and detects the motions of the eye. What you need is to train yourself, which means you have to spend between five to fifteen minutes by adjusting the device to your eye movements. That's the only constrain. What's interesting is that people with disabilities are able to finish the training exercise much faster. This means that they are done in five minutes and can use it quite efficiently."

To select icons, folders, or documents, just close your eyes a little longer than when you blink. There's an integrated keyboard with special characters that you can use to write texts. Prague's well-known Jedlicka Institute is dedicated to making the lives of the disabled as pleasant as possible and integrating them into society. The institute's Tomas Susicky tested out the I4Control system:

"It's good for web browsing, chatting with other people, and listening to internet radio. What benefits us is that it is a Czech programme so it should be cheaper [than foreign inventions]. It also replaces the system and we do not need any special software for it. So, this is very important for our country because we have a difficult language. So, if we can operate with normal windows, it's very good."

So it's goodbye to uncomfortable electrodes, special contact lenses, and complicated software. But the I4Control system has yet to be mass produced. Its inventors are awaiting authorization from the Czech health care authorities because tests have shown it can also be used as a medical device:

"Of course there may be other ways of using this system. For instance you can use it for the automatic follow-up of moving targets and objects in the camera. You can also use it to evaluate the mental or physical state of patients because you can evaluate the motions. So there are other potential applications in the medical field and others as well."

The Czech Technical University's invention is one of Europe's best Information Society Technologies. Every year independent experts from 16 European countries nominate the most attractive and innovative products for the prestigious IST Grand Prize. The I4Control system is the only invention from the ten newest EU member states and from a university team that is an IST prize winner this year.