Monday, November 23, 2015

OptiKey: Free, open source software to help people with reduced motor functions use computers

Julius Sweetland is a London-based developer who works with financial software.  But for the past three and a half years, he's been working independently on a free and open source piece of assistive technology called OptiKey

Optikey is designed to allow people with physical and speech impairments to use essential computer functions, including an on-screen keyboard and mouse, by simply moving their eyes.  Paired with an eye-tracking device, the software lets users click, type, and even convert what they've written into audio, an especially useful feature for individuals who cannot speak.  See it in action here:

Sweetland was inspired to create the software after his aunt, Gill, was diagnosed with motor neuron disease.  He was disappointed with the options she was offered to help her communicate when her own abilities began to disappear, and as he says in the video below, he wanted to try making his own solution.  Other alternatives were prohibitively expensive, but Sweetland released his for free, saying that it didn't feel right to profiteer.  For full hands-free capabilities the software does have to be paired with an external eye-tracking device, but it is designed to work with many possible brands, including some that are available for around $100.

The development process wasn't always easy.  Sweetland went through several prototypes and tried different types of external cameras, including one converted from a PlayStation.  The tests ultimately allowed him to design something that would work well with existing technologies, and, eventually, he was ready to share it with an actual person.  He worked with the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, London, and was able to receive feedback on his work from a patient there (a patient who, coincidentally, was an ex-software developer himself).  Sweetland says he used this feedback to help improve the next version of the software.

To type using OptiKey, an individual looks at a key on the on-screen keyboard for long enough to "press" it (the time delay prevents keys from accidentally being pressed when a user merely looks at them briefly).  To shorten the process of typing out words, a feature similar to the "swiping" process available on many smart phone keyboards is available, which users can utilize by looking at the first letter of a word long enough to select it and then simply glancing at the middle letters before focusing on the last letter long enough to select it and form the word.  Other familiar smart phone-esque features include suggestions for words and phrases that pop up when a user starts to type.  A "Speak" button is also available next to the on-screen keyboard's input field, which can be "pressed" to convert the typed text into audio.

Currently the program only works on computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, but Sweetland says that a number of volunteers have offered to help make it compatible with the Macintosh operating system.  It's already designed to be compatible with voice banking programs, which allow users to record their voices (or "bank" them) for the future.  That way, when using the text-to-speech feature later, they can still sound a bit like themselves.

You can learn more about Julius Sweetland and Optikey on Upvoted, Business Insider, and Digital Trends.  All of the computer code for OptiKey is available for free on the code-sharing site GitHub.

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