OptiKey is a FREE and open source assistive tool I found online recently that’s designed for people with motor and speech impairments. It’s essentially an on-screen keyboard that can be controlled via a user’s eyes to enable communication with others (via text-to-speech) and general control of a computer.
It runs on Windows (although could be used on a Mac with software such as Parallels) and is designed to work in conjunction with a range of low-cost eye trackers that are currently available on the market (e.g. Tobii EyeX, EyeTribe, etc.). It therefore holds huge potential as a cost-effective solution for people with a range of conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, ALS, Motor Neurone Disease, and many others.
It also allows users to control the mouse cursor via their eyes making it possible to complete other standard tasks such as web browsing, sending emails, and writing in Word (although some tasks are still likely to be difficult – e.g. drawing with your eyes is especially tricky).
It can be tempting to sometimes think that free software may be substandard, but a lot of work has clearly gone into the development of OptiKey and I’m sure it can genuinely help a lot of people. It has the feel of a paid product and seems free of any major bugs (from the testing I’ve been doing with it).
To get started, all you need is a calibrated eye tracking device (I’ve been using the Tobii EyeX) and then download the software. There is guidance for getting started and lots of help available that describe the different features of the application. There are also a couple of videos that provide an overview of how to use the software.
Button selections in OptiKey can be made in a variety of ways – either through dwell time (i.e. looking at a button for a set period of time) or via physical buttons (e.g. large switches). There’s also the option to use OptiKey with a webcam (via cursor control software such as Enable Viacam, Camera Mouse, and Opengazer) if you don’t have access to an eye tracker.
The developer of OptiKey (Julius Sweetland) states that he developed the application to “… challenge the outrageously expensive, unreliable, and difficult to use AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) products on the market”. This is certainly a worthy goal and much more feasible now given the massive reduction in price of eye tracking technology over recent years.
In speaking to disabled artists on the D2ART project (and through past projects), it’s clear that many people with disabilities haven’t previously considered eye gaze technology due to the expensive price tag. However, we’re now entering an exciting period where this technology is much cheaper and therefore more accessible to a much larger audience.
This, in turn, presents great opportunities for designers and developers to create innovative eye gaze applications that can genuinely help people with disabilities. OptiKey clearly demonstrates this potential – I’d strongly encourage you to check it out.