Artist's Skills Restored for $50 in Parts

Cheap sunglasses and low-tech components allow Tony Quan, who has ALS, to draw again using his eyes; plans and software are free online

Tony Quan wearing the Eyewriter
Article Highlights:
  • When noted graffiti-style artist Tony Quan lost his ability to draw due to ALS, his friends united to create a low-cost eye-controlled drawing device, the Eyewriter.
  • Plans and software for the device are available free online.
  • Find information and watch a video of Quan's artistic process at
by Bill Norman on April 2, 2010 - 2:56pm

A Los Angeles graffiti artist with ALS was the inspiration behind a low-cost, eye-controlled drawing device called the Eyewriter.  For about $50 in simple components, Tony Quan (aka “Tempt 1”) has been able to resume creating his artwork for the first time in more than six years.

'Hackers and artists' join forces

Quan learned he had ALS in 2003. A well-known graffiti-style artist and social activist, in the 1980s Quan had created a distinctive form of graffiti-type art.

Quan’s disease progressed rapidly, until all he could move were his eyes. His career came to an abrupt stop and would have stayed stopped had his case not come to the attention of several people from across the country, loosely described as “a bunch of hackers and artists.”

Staff from organizations including Free Art and Technology (FAT), the Graffiti Research Lab and OpenFrameworks, with support from The Ebeling Group, Parsons Communication Design & Technology, the Not Impossible Foundation and others collaborated for several months to come up with the device they named the Eyewriter (

Plans and software are free

The device consists of cheap eyeglass frames, some wire ties and copper wire, several LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and a micro video camera.  Free, do-it-yourself instructions for building one can be found on the Eyewriter Web site. The hardware is used in conjunction with original computer software, also written by the Eyewriter team. The software is open source (free), too.

The Eyewriter tracks Quan’s eye movements and permits him to plot points on a computer monitor. From the points he can create letters and words that he can fill in with colors, render in 3-D if he wants, and add other features.

Like air for a drowning man

 The tech team built the Eyewriter at no cost to Quan. When they first fitted it on him, in the hospital bed where he spends all of his time, he was overwhelmed. After tentatively trying the equipment out, spelling his father’s name, Ron, and seeing it projected on the wall of his room, he’s quoted as saying (by communicating slowly through an eye gaze alphabet selection device) that he felt like a person who has been held underwater for 5 minutes, then mercifully brought up to breathe.

Zach Lieberman of the Graffiti Research Lab said existing systems that could replicate the abilities of the Eyewriter would cost between $10,000 and $15,000. He said the group has no plans to market, sell or otherwise benefit from the Eyewriter, other than to see it used to help others like Quan communicate more effectively.

“I can’t even begin to describe how good it feels to be able to rock styles again,” Quan told a friend. Since putting the Eyewriter to work, he has participated in art shows in venues as diverse as Norway, Vienna and Tokyo.

Go to the Eyewriter site to see a video of Tony using the device to create graffiti art, which later is projected onto the side of a building in Los Angeles.

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