LIANE HANSEN, host:
The South by Southwest Interactive Festival is all about invention, inspiration and innovation. Zach Lieberman and his team have created a new way for people to interact with computers. This year, they won the Future Everything Award for their newest innovation called the EyeWriter - that's E-Y-E writer. We caught up with Lieberman after one of the sessions in the Austin Convention Center.
Mr. ZACH LIEBERMAN (Co-Creator, EyeWriter): What I've been developing or what we have won a prize for is an eye tracking device. And that's a device that allows you to communicate with the computer using your eyes. And I'm working with a team of people and we've been developing low-cost open source hardware and software for eye tracking.
The project is called the EyeWriter and it was inspired and created for the graffiti writer based in L.A. His name is Tony Quan or his graffiti name is Tempt. And about seven years ago he was walking down the street and fell over and he was diagnosed with ALS, with Lou Gehrig's Disease. And he's on a ventilator and he can only communicate using his eyes. And we've been building tools for him to draw again using his eyes.
HANSEN: Can you tell us in kind of basic language, something that I can understand, about how does it work? First of all, how is the computer connected to the person's eye?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Sure. So, what we've done - it's actually quite simple. We bought a pair of sunglasses and then we've assembled a kind of wire frame that holds a Web cam - it's a kind of small camera - that weve mounted close to the eye and then we've written software that tracks the eye. And then we calibrate with his eye movements on the computer screen.
HANSEN: So, he can do line and color and...
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Exactly. So, he can - and it's very slow, it's very methodical. It's a lot slower, you know, obviously, than drawing with your hands. But he can plot points, and from plotting points, create letters, and from creating letters, create words. And then color the words, shade the words, extrude them in 3D, add different features. And we really were studying his art form, his love of letter forms and trying to make software that would allow him to express himself again.
HANSEN: Can this be developed to help others if you custom made this for the graffiti artist?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Sure.
HANSEN: Is it something that can be applied in general?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, commercial eye trackers are quite expensive. So, you know, to get a device is $10,000 or $15,000, and here's a kind of do-it-yourself kit almost where it's $50 to build an eye tracker. And there are people who have, you know, loved ones who have ALS or have locked-in syndrome or MS or other diseases where having that option at least of a kind of device that you can build for somebody who's in need is really, I think it's really important and really necessary.
HANSEN: Is this something that you can make money with?
Mr. LIEBERMAN: I don't know. I mean, we're not in it to make money. We make money - you know, we do commercial work - this is really coming from the heart.
HANSEN: Zach Lieberman is one of the creators of the EyeWriter. He's also one of the digital bohemians at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.
You can see more at our Web site, NPR.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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