Almost three years ago my mother passed away after over a twenty five year long battle with Multiple Sclerosis — a disease that left her mostly paralyzed. Although paralyzed in two legs and one parts2arm, she was blessed to be able to use her right hand still to operate her wheelchair up until she died. This gave her independence in a very difficult situation, but what if she couldn’t use her right hand either? Having been exposed to Multiple Sclerosis’ (and Lou Gehrig’s disease’s) potential paralyzing effects, and being a writer for 3D printing technology, I am thrilled to report that makers are tackling this difficult issue by developing a straightforward way to direct a wheelchair, using one’s eyes. And the design is a finalist in Europe’s largest youth science competition, called “Jugend forscht”, too!
Meet fourteen year old, Myrijam Stoetzer, and Paul Foltin, who’s fifteen years old. They are the young makers behind this wheelchair controlled by eye movement. Stoetzer’s blog takes us through a quick summary of how the project got built and perfected as they graduated to the finals of the Jugend forscht competition. Hackaday also covers the project, as does Adafruit’s blog.
Just a brief description of how such a seemingly complex device was made. The team first designed an eyetracker using safetyglass frames, a normal webcam, and SMD-LEDs that are soldered on. The filter inside the webcam was changed to only bypass IR light to make it independent from the surrounding light conditions. So, the eye is lit up by the SMD-LEDs only. Their project developed as the competition progressed to different levels and they ended up making everything from scratch for the final competition level, including the 3D printed parts. They also relied on the brand new Raspberry Pi 2B. (The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized low cost computer.) This processes the video stream of the pupil’s position and compares it with adjustable preset values representing forward, reverse, left and right. The motors used were retrieved from the window washers at a car junkyard.
Once you get past the technical aspects of the project’s description you can get to the human side of how useful and important a wheelchair controlled by eye movement can be. Take, for Stephen_Hawking_Reuters1example, Stephen Hawking, who is one of the most renowned theoretical physicists in the world and has been wheelchair bound because of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) for decades. Hawking is only able to move his eyes and a cheek muscle, and he currently uses the cheek muscle to control his wheelchair (see above photo.) Like Hawking, people who already experience paralysis or will eventually become paralyzed can live knowing they will not be dependent on others to move around in wheelchairs. This is an open source design available to all, so more and more individuals needing such a life-altering device can possibly access it more readily.
Stay tuned to find out how Stoetzer and Foltin do as finalists in the competition. They certainly have a bright future waiting for them as dynamic and innovative makers, and they really outdid themselves this time with their ingenious eye movement controlled wheelchair — using 3D printed parts.