OptiKey Brings Affordable Eye Tracking to People With Neurological Disorders

October 26, 2015

10:00 am

In an age where we have people such as Martin Shkreli taking home the title of most hated man in America for price gouging on a previously affordable pill, other organizations are taking note and fighting back. High costs and medical coverage regularly go hand-in-hand, which is especially true when it involves technology, research, and hardware. But should it?

OptiKey, a free open source project by a 32-year-old software developer in London, Julius Sweetland, is disrupting the eye tracking market for those with neurological disorders. Eye tracking software is designed to assist people with motor neuron diseases (MNDs), and are unable to type on a physical keyboard. As a result of the software, a special camera tracks the user’s eye movement across a virtual keyboard, which then translates to text just as if they were typing.

Typically eye tracking software has a hefty price tag, some ranging up to $20,000 and that doesn’t even include the necessary hardware. However, Sweetland is looking to change this by offering OptiKey free of charge, and it even pairs with a low cost camera such as the Tobii EyeX Controller ($139). The goal for Sweetland is to shake up the market, just as Imprimis Pharmaceuticals has announced they will against the likes of Shkreli. For the past 3 and a half years he’s spent his free time developing the software, and by day developing software for the financial services industry.

When asked what motivated Sweetland to devote so much of his time to developing OptiKey, he reflected back on his family. “My aunt died of MND a little over 4 years ago and two things stuck with me; firstly how horrible degenerative diseases are, and secondly that the available communication devices and solutions available were either insufficient, or extremely expensive. I thought, and still think, that this is very unfair,” said Sweetland. “A person facing such adversity shouldn’t have to spend huge amounts of their money just to be able to communicate with their loved ones. I thought that there was a chance that I could make something better and set about trying.”

Sweetland never intended to make money from the software either, which made it easy for him to choose an open source license instead. “My main goal for the project was to create something that was available to everyone with no barrier to entry, so making it free just seemed like the right choice. After that the decision to open source it was easy – if I’m not trying to make money, then why not share everything? I’ve had an excellent response to this, with people getting stuck in to fix little bugs and currently there is a whole group of people working to translate OptiKey into a range of languages. I could never have hoped to achieve these goals without community help. Open sourcing the project was a great decision.”

One such community, and where I became aware of Sweetland’s work, is Reddit. Certainly there are some interesting and negative components to the site, but throughout the various subreddits he’s interacted with people he’s gained users, praise, and some added fuel to motivate him to continue working. However, as a team of one, motivation can be a challenge.

“It’s not been easy if I’m honest. Wavering motivation and general life has made me put down this project a number of times. In the last 4 years I’ve been working full time, changed jobs twice, got married, had a baby, and I’m currently in the process of moving house. There have been large periods of time when I’ve been stuck on a problem, or where a DIY eye tracker has been under-performing and I’ve come very close to giving up,” said Sweetland. “This is really why it’s taken me so long (3.5 years of spare time) to get OptiKey to a state where I felt happy to release it. I suppose I never gave up because every now I’d get a bit of inspiration, or there would be a news story about someone struggling with MND or a similar disease, and I’d be reminded that what I was trying to do was important and had the potential to make a real difference, even if only for one or two people.”

As for the future, Sweetland has other ideas in his notebook, but is going to continue to dedicate his time to OptiKey. People on Reddit even asked if they could donate money to his development, but Sweetland modestly turned it down and instead asked those interested to donate to cancer research.

“At the moment  I’m not looking beyond OptiKey. The response has been fantastic, but this is just the beginning. I have some new features that I’d like to add, translations to launch and various other bits and pieces. I’m also speaking with hardware companies about the possibility of collaborating to get free (and possibly open-source) eye trackers on the market. That could change everything,” said Sweetland.

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Elliot is an award winning journalist deeply ingrained in the startup world and is often digging into emerging technology and data. When not writing, he's likely either running or training for a triathlon. You can contact him by email at elliot(@) or follow him on Twitter @thejournalizer.