Typing and clicking on a computer using only your eyes might seem like nothing more than a parlor trick to the everyday user, but to people with neurological disorders, it’s life changing. Julius Sweetland, a 32-year-old software developer in London, has spent the past 3 1/2 years using his spare time to build OptiKey, a free and open-source assistive on-screen keyboard for Windows compatible with low-cost eye-tracking devices.
Up until now, the technology required to enable those with motor and speech conditions like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease) or other motor neuron diseases (MNDs) to communicate in this fashion can cost up to around $20,000. “OptiKey was written to challenge the outrageously expensive, unreliable, and difficult-to-use AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) products on the market,” Sweetland wrote on the GitHub page for OptiKey. “It is, therefore, fully open-source and free. Forever.”
Sweetland says OptiKey can work out of the box with low-cost eye-tracking devices, such as the Tobii EyeX, which costs $139 ($164 with shipping). It’s an alternative to a physical keyboard and can be used to type into any application. OptiKey also features an optional swipe-like functionality, reminiscent of swipe-to-type features found in many smartphone keyboards. So, for instance, typing the word “click” requires the user to select “c,” then glance at “l,” “i,” “c,” and select “k.”
“Basically you don’t have to complete the selections on the middle letters, just the first and last and make sure you ‘touch’ the other letters in between,” Sweetland explained in a well-received Reddit thread he started about OptiKey. “It then matches to the dictionary of known words and phrases.”
An on-screen “Speak” button will convert the inputted words into speech that the computer will say out loud. OptiKey also allows users to click on their screen without using a mouse.
“Maybe releasing this for free will disrupt the market a bit and bring the cost of the ‘off the shelf’ software down. That would be something,” Sweetland wrote in a Reddit comment.
Rather than accepting donations, Sweetland is directing people who want to express their support to a JustGiving page set up to raise funds for Cancer Research UK. He found inspiration to code OptiKey from the death of his aunt, who had an MND. Sweetland recently began testing OptiKey with a patient at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability.