Academics and Research

Engineering students opening doors for patients with limited mobility

Engineering students at the University of Denver have created a workable, affordable device that allows a user to move a cursor about a computer screen just by moving his eyes. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Imagine being able to control the world around you with just a glance.

A team of University of Denver engineering students figured out a way to do just that. They imagined a way to help people with severely limited mobility control their environment simply by moving their eyes. Then they set about making that vision a reality.

Students John DeWitt, Jeff Evans, Peter Neilson and Jordan Rath toiled for an entire academic year, working with Professors Peter Laz and Mohammad Mahoor and adjunct Professor Bob Johnson in a senior engineering class to create a workable, affordable device that allows a user to move a cursor about a computer screen just by moving his eyes.

They tackled the challenge throughout the 2011–12 academic year in collaboration with Denver’s Craig Hospital, one of the country’s best-known facilities specializing in long-term care and rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury.

The team was challenged to create five pairs of eye-tracking glasses and deliver them to Craig Hospital’s adaptive technology lab for testing. In June, students, professors and patients converged with hospital researchers for a road test.

Scott Abram sat patiently in a wheelchair inside the lab, a room crammed with devices and prototypes aimed at helping those with limited mobility. Students set the prototype on his face and adjusted the eye-tracking module. They had him glance to the corner of a computer screen, then to the other corner as they dialed in the system to track his pupil.

They turned on an electronic “keyboard,” a screen filled with the letters of the alphabet, and had Abram focus on a letter. Abram glanced, and a cursor moved. He let it hover, and the letter “clicked.”

There was an audible sigh of relief from the team.

This year, a new group of students will look to pick up where the last team left off, making the design sleeker and more durable. Similar devices already exist, but they work best in strictly controlled environments with equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. What the DU team set out to create was a real-world system—a less-expensive option that is durable enough to use every day.

“We were specifically trying to make the system more useable, as well as try to make it a low-cost option,” Laz says. “The vision was to create some systems that will be low cost—$100, $200—and that could create a new market where people could take this home and use it in their house.”

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