My 2 year old daughter Emily was recently diagnosed with Rett Syndrome. This genetic disorder has taken away the words she once had. Baring novel medical treatments she will remain nonverbal for life. It has been a difficult time for our family but one thing that comforts us is the amazing stories we read of girls successfully communicating and even becoming fully literate with the help of eye gaze systems.
I am a software developer and my wife is a teacher, so of course we are super eager to get started! We’re also very lucky to live in Ontario, Canada where it is possible to get funding through a government program. It’s not a perfect system and it will take at least several months to get approval but we’re hopeful we will get a device this coming summer.
In the meantime I’ve begun to explore setting up an AAC system with consumer grade products. My entire setup was under $1000. If you already have a decent Windows PC, you can get an eye tracker for $100 – $200. And guess what – it works! My daughter was able to play cause and effect games and even make choices between two items on the first day. Two weeks later she is using a few different pages with 16 items on each page. Of course she’s not perfect at this point and we know it’s going to be a long process with lots of hard work required on our end but I’m thrilled to be getting started.
I have been posting about our progress on Facebook and a bunch of people reached out to me asking about the tech we are using. What follows is going to be a brief overview of what I’ve learned so far. But one word of caution: you are not going to get an out of the box experience following this path. It will take time to get everything setup how you want it and if you’re not a technical person you will likely need assistance from someone who is.
Low Cost Eye Trackers
There are 2 commonly available low cost eye trackers on the market. I picked the Tobii EyeX without really doing any research so I can’t recommend it over the eye tribe.
Tobii EyeX – $139 ($99 with coupon)
Eye Tribe Tracker Pro – $199
You will need a Windows PC computer with USB3. Tobii recommends i5 processor and 4GB of RAM for the EyeX but I’m running on an i3 without issue. You likely won’t get away with using an Atom or Celeron based system. We decided to buy a Surface Pro 3 since it is very portable, has a decent screen size and lets us touch the screen for modelling. You can find them for a reasonable price second hand now that the Surface Pro 4 is out.
Free and Low Cost Software
There are some AAC applications built specifically for use on these trackers. They are not nearly as full featured as what you will find from the commercial vendors, but if all you want to do is setup a basic grid or move the mouse with your eyes, they can get the job done.
GazeSpeaker – Free
This is the closest thing you will find to a full featured communication suite. I found it to work well once setup, but I’d have to restart the application if I disconnected the eye tracker or put the computer to sleep. It’s not optimized for very young users so I had to create my own grids from scratch – a process that isn’t very intuitive.
Click2Speak – Free
Allows you to control both the keyboard and mouse using your eyes. This works really well for web games and other software that can be controlled using only mouse movement. I’ve configured it to control the mouse on launch.
Board Maker Online – $10/month or $99/year
I haven’t tried this one out yet, but it was recommended to me and seems like it could be a good solution for people. It has a huge symbol set and large community. Many families may already be using board maker at home or at school. You would need to use Click2Speak in combination with this.
For my daughter’s needs I found none of these solutions perfectly matched what I had hoped to get, but they did get me 80% of the way there and that’s a lot better than having nothing. I’ve been experimenting writing my own software with Tobii’s SDK and may have more to say about that in a future post.
Please let me know if you find this useful and if there is anything you’d like me to expand upon. My hope is this page may become a resource for anyone wanting to use a high tech commercial eye gaze AAC system but without the funding or resources to purchase one.