Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has announced that Windows 10 will include built-in eye tracking support and an experience called Eye Control.
This functionality was developed following a request in 2014 by former NFL player Steve Gleason, who has a neuromuscular disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gleeson sent an email to Microsoft, challenging employees at the company’s first hackathon.
Steve’s ask to this diverse array of thinkers, doers and dreamers was to develop technology that could address some of the constraints he faces living with ALS, a disease which causes the death of neurons that control muscle movement, resulting in difficulty moving, speaking, swallowing, and eventually, breathing. For most people with ALS, the eyes are the only muscle not impacted by the disease.
Steve wanted to be able to play with his son, talk more easily with his wife and to move his wheelchair by himself: goals that for someone with ALS seemed like an impossible dream.
“I realised pretty quickly after my diagnosis that technology would have to become an extension of myself. Until there is a medical cure for ALS, technology will be that cure,“ Steve said.
Steve's challenge was a natural fit for Microsoft, especially during One Week Hackathon, which encourages employees to focus on passion projects that advance the company’s mission of empowering people around the planet. A team calling themselves Ability Eye Gaze took on Steve’s ask, excited by the opportunity to create technology that could genuinely affect a person’s life, and quickly got to work.
The Ability Eye Gaze team focused on developing a tool based on Steve's requests, and after three days of hacking, one of the projects stood out: the Eye Gaze Wheelchair. This unique solution allowed Steve to drive his wheelchair with only the movement of his eyes as he looked at controls on his Surface.
The judges reviewed over 3,000 projects from teams across the company, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella named the Eye Gaze Wheelchair the grand prize winner of the 2014 hackathon. The Eye Gaze Wheelchair received such enthusiasm from employees and the ALS community that a new Microsoft Research team was created to understand the potential of eye tracking technology.
When the Windows team came across this technology, they immediately saw the potential for eye tracking to change people’s lives as well. Eric Badger, principal software engineer lead on Windows, and Harish Kulkarni, principal software development engineer in Microsoft Research, quickly started prototyping new eye tracking scenarios together. The results were promising and they dedicated a team of engineers to bring eye tracking support to Windows.
Eye Control makes Windows 10 more accessible by empowering people with disabilities to operate an onscreen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes. The experience requires a compatible eye tracker, like the Tobii 4C, which unlocks access to the Windows operating system to be able to do the tasks one could previously accomplish with a physical mouse and keyboard.
Right now, Eye Control is in beta and people interested in early testing and providing feedback can sign up to be a Windows Insider.