Eyes of Independence

Eye-control technology enables college student to communicate with the world

by Alyssa Quintero on November 1, 2008 - 10:32am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 6

College student Stephanie Milas of Tipp City, Ohio, is determined to graduate with a business degree, and then go into the world and put it to good use. And to accomplish her goals, Milas relies on her eyes for much more than seeing.

Stephanie Milas
Stephanie Milas communicates with the world by using the MyTobii P10 — and she does it with her eyes.

With the help of an eye-controlled speech-generating communication device, Milas’ eyes do the talking, too. Small high-resolution cameras follow her eye movement, and she’s able to use the system’s text-to-speech capabilities, as well as write e-mails and class papers, surf the Internet and play games in her spare time.

Milas, who’s affected by spinal muscular atrophy, is paralyzed from the neck down, and her speech is difficult to understand. As a result, she doesn’t have a lot of options for communication and computer access. In the past, Milas often relied on family members and caregivers to translate her speech and facial expressions, and to help with typing school assignments.

Now, eye control technology has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

“I love it, and it gives me a lot more independence,” Milas explained. “I don’t have to rely on others to type for me, I have more freedom to do it myself, and the nurses don’t have to try to interpret my thoughts.”

Getting started

Milas, 23, enrolled at Wright State University five years ago, with support from Ohio’s Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR). BVR helps with tuition, fees, books and other educational expenses related to her degree.

It’s no secret that a functional computer is a key to surviving and succeeding in college. So when Milas’ old laptop crashed more than a year ago, the accounting/finance major turned to Voc Rehab for help.

Although she asked for help in repairing her computer, BVR ordered an extensive evaluation which determined that Milas might benefit from an eyegaze system.

Milas tried two different devices but found early success with the MyTobii P10, manufactured by Tobii Technology Inc. in Sweden, and distributed in the United States by Tobii Assistive Technology Inc. (Tobii ATI).

“It was easier to use because the buttons are easier to target, and the programs are more user-friendly and easy to follow,” she said.

Milas also only had to calibrate the MyTobii system once, while she had to recalibrate the other system every time she turned it on.

With her old laptop, Milas had used DragonDictate (which turned her speech into type), as well as EZ Keys and the SofType onscreen keyboard. DragonDictate didn’t work very well, however, because it had trouble adapting to changes in her speech. And the word prediction in the EZ Keys text-tospeech software was slow and tiring to use.

“All of these different programs seemed to be a lot more time-consuming and frustrating. But MyTobii is so much easier, and it almost seems effortless compared to the other programs I had tried,” Milas emphasized.

After eight months of evaluations and try-outs, Milas received her device in June. Voc Rehab provided full funding. The basic MyTobii P10 speech-generating device with full eye control starts at $13,800, and features a 15-inch touch screen and VS Communicator communication software package.

Because Milas’ device was for school in addition to daily communication, her Voc Rehab engineer and case manager requested that Tobii ATI install the Microsoft Office Suite so she’d have full access to e-mail, text messaging, Internet and Microsoft applications.

If the device needs repairs or upgrades in the future, BVR will help cover the cost.

MyTobii works

Milas, who relies on trach ventilation, uses her mouth to operate a mini joystick that drives her power wheelchair. She typically has the MyTobii mounted on her wheelchair but also uses it on a mount over her bed.

Each day, it takes about three minutes for one of Milas’ caregivers to set up the system. Then, Milas uses the device for at least six to seven hours a day, and even more when school is in session.

“When I first started using the MyTobii, I became fatigued just after two or three hours,” Milas explained. “My eyes would become red and watery, and sometimes I would get a headache. But now, the more I use it, the less tired I become because I’ve gotten used to it.”

Milas, who’s typing up to 24 words per minute with her eyes, uses the dwell selection method in which she focuses on a certain part of the screen for a second before the device makes the selection.

Because the MyTobii is both an all-in-one communication system and a fully functioning Windows computer, Milas not only uses it to write class assignments, but also to deliver speeches and class presentations using the text-to-speech capabilities. She also uses it for e-mails, instant and text messaging, surfing the Internet and playing games, including, most recently, World of Warcraft, an online fantasy adventure game played against other real-life users.

“There are 70 levels to complete quests, and right now I’m working on level 20,” said Milas. “I thought I would never get to play the game, but now I’m able to with the help of the MyTobii.”

Milas admits that using the MyTobii has been a learning process. But she’s doing all she can to learn about the device, especially the communication software, and says that the system’s ease of use far outweighs any challenges.

“It took less than 30 seconds to calibrate, and since the initial calibration, I haven’t had to do it again,” Milas adds. “I’ve had to restart the system a few times if it freezes or can’t read my eyes, but that happens with most computers.”

Dan Lipka, the Tobii ATI consultant who set up Milas’ system, considers Milas to be a “power user” because she’s been able to make use of everything the technology has to offer from the start. Lipka noted that the MyTobii P10 is a “forgiving” system because it’s easy to calibrate, and it’s not necessary to keep the head perfectly still to use it, or to maintain the same position as when it was first calibrated.

“Stephanie’s grown up with computers, so they are not as much a mystery to her as they might be for an older person that lacks such experience,” Lipka explained. “Although you don’t have to be a computer expert to use the MyTobii, it’s often easier for a person who has used a computer in the past to be able to do some of the more advanced functions like e-mail and surfing the Web.”

When Milas has a problem or question about the system and software, she often visits the MyTobii Community (www.mytobiicommunity.com), an online meeting place where users can chat with other users and learn tips and trouble-shooting methods. Milas also has made new friends in the virtual community.

Milas says she’s confident that once she earns her degree and seeks employment, the system will continue to get the job done.

“It’s going to be a great asset for when I’m ready to get a job. If an employer is worried about my speech, the MyTobii can speak for me,” Milas said.

“It gives me so much more freedom and independence without having to rely on others,” she emphasized. “It’s really changed my whole life.”

MDA will provide a one-time $2,000 grant toward the purchase of a communication device prescribed through one of its clinics.

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