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Breakthrough Targets People with ALS

By John M. Williams

On July 7, Israeli entrepreneurs Or Retzkin and Itai Kornberg, along with the nonprofit organization Prize4Life, launched a funding campaign to bring to market a communication device to help fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease).

EyeControl device/Google ImagesEyeControl, a company founded by Retzkin and chief technology officer Kormberg, has developed a new, low-cost system of the same name whereby portable glasses allow “locked-in” patients to communicate with their eyes. The company originally set a goal of raising $30,000 through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. By the end of July, the company had already exceeded that figure.

ALS is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative illness that attacks motor neurons. When motor neurons die, the brain is unable to control muscle movement.

Founded in 2006, Prize4Life is a results-oriented nonprofit founded to accelerate ALS research by offering substantial prizes to scientists to solve the most critical scientific problems preventing an effective treatment.

EyeControl uses a head-mounted infrared camera that tracks eye movements and translates them to spoken words. The camera communicates with a microcomputer called “Odroid” via USB. The “Odroid” translates the user’s eye direction and movements into commands. The commands can be communicated in three outputs: headphones, speaker or smartphone via Bluetooth.

To convey the user’s command, the EyeControl mobile app uses a unique algorithm to calibrate the device to the user’s needs.

The EyeControl system is currently based on a three-step solution: 1) alert sound, i.e., calling for assistance, 2) predefined sentences, such as “I’m hot,” “My hand hurts,” etc. and 3) composing sentences, similar to Short Message Service, a text-messaging service component of phone, Web or mobile communication systems.

ALS patients represent a subgroup of people with fully functional cognitive abilities who gradually lose their ability to speak and use their limbs. Therefore, they are not able to communicate with their environment due to technical limitations -- in other words, they are “locked in.”

Only 30 percent of “locked-in” ALS individuals in Israel can afford the pricey solutions available today, which cost patients around $5,000. Seventy percent of “locked-in” ALS victims simply cannot communicate with current communication devices.

By utilizing existing technologies such as headphones, speakers and Bluetooth devices, the designers of EyeControl have created a portable technology that allows for potentially life-saving computer-free interaction.

With their new communication glasses, the makers of the EyeControl system have cut the price of communication by 95 percent (in comparison to all the other solutions on the market today). Furthermore, existing devices, though they may be affordable to some people, are limited in that they require a stationary computer screen to function. This limitation can jeopardize the life of an ALS patient who is lying in bed or traveling in a vehicle.

By utilizing existing technologies such as headphones, speakers and Bluetooth devices, the designers of Eye- Control have created a portable technology that allows for potentially life-saving computer-free interaction. EyeControl produced a working prototype of the device, which is capable of deciphering an ALS patient's eye movements in two languages: English and Hebrew, with many more languages to come.

A user demonstrates the EyeControl system/Google ImagesBecause most ALS patients have similar needs, Eye- Control has rounded out about 10 to 15 standard sayings. By using an earset attached to the device, patients have vocal feedback in order to answer questions or say what they want to say. For example, if a patient is asked, “Are you ready for bed?” and moves his eyes upward to indicate “Yes,” the camera will detect that movement and transmit the response accordingly.

“People with ALS will no longer need to pay a high amount of money to have a voice,” Retzkin, EyeControl’s chief executive officer, said in announcing the campaign. “Every member of our team has a family member or friend living with ALS. A year ago, we decided to create a portable and affordable communication solution for ‘lockedin’ people, and today we are proud to present EyeControl to the Indiegogo community.”

Backers can donate anywhere from $10 to $1,500 with rewards such as T-shirts with the EyeControl logo and thank you videos from ALS patients. The funds will further develop EyeControl’s algorithms, user experience and design.

The funds raised also will help the team improve the apps they offer to locked-in patients and allow for other features that ease communication.

John M. Williams specializes in writing about disability issues. He can be reached at

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