Breaking Communications Barriers

11 Jan 2018, Amelie Karlsson

Breaking Communications Barriers

Human interaction has evolved over the years and technology has played an essential role in the communication development these past decades. Sending a nonverbal message to our peers through eye contact has always been a crucial way of communicating and nowadays this is getting more and more integrated in advanced technology. This means the movement of an eye can now tell you more than possibly imagined.

The LINK met with Rob Gregory at the world-leading eye tracking provider Tobii Dynavox, which helps enable and support communication for both disabled and non-disabled people. Tobii Dynavox’s advanced digital products have helped  disabled people that have not been able to communicate before to now show signs of interaction. This is thanks to the development of digital products that have made them become more intelligent and with a more natural and richer interaction.

Tobii Dynavox’s eye tracker contains small cameras which is placed in front of a computer. When looking into it, a red light will shine into the eyes which illuminates the pupil. This will allow the tracker to register where the eyes are pointing as well as the shape and reflection of the eyes. After an initial session of calibration, the tracker must be able to pick up and recognise the user’s eyes almost instantly even after looking away from the screen. The eyes can then be used for operating an onscreen mouse, a keyboard, and a text-to-speech function. This is greatly empowering people with disabilities.

Tobii Dynavox has to implement a lot of personal adaptations as the people they help often have quite complex sensory impairment, Gregory said. This means that they may not see or hear very well. It can involve a vocal or a physical impairment which means that they cannot use a keyboard or a pen to write with. Usually, the products must be personally adapted in order to make them work perfectly for a particular individual, a complex process, according to Gregory.  “That is what we proud ourselves on – getting the products absolutely right and tailoring them,” Gregory continued.

Gregory gave an example of an adult with a brain damage that Tobii Dynavox has helped. His caretakers did not know whether he could read or not and they mostly just turned the television on for him. However, Tobii Dynavox put him in front of its software and was able to see that he was reading by studying the movement of his eyes. “That completely changed the course of his therapy and daily output,” Gregory said.

Since Gregory started at the company in 2009, Tobii Dynavox has developed and gone from devices which were huge and really expensive to now being built into Microsoft’s Windows 10. This basically means that it will be possible to get a Tobii eye tracker and plug it into any computer that has been updated with Windows 10. “It is a testimony of how reliable, huge and good this product is, as well as its future prospects,” Gregory said. This is all very exciting as it will give people a simple way to be able to communicate by just buying an eye tracker, Gregory said. The cost has hugely dropped as well, which means that the products have become more affordable and easier accessible.

Gregory also said there has been a growing interest in developing countries where there has been little public funding for products such as Tobii Dynavox’s. This is of course something Tobii Dynavox has aimed for. “It allows people to communicate who financially would not have been able to communicate,” Gregory said.

Although technology has already greatly improved the way people with disabilities communicate, as the technical development and the innovation of products continues, the future is set to deliver even better and more affordable products to empower communication.

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