Ganga is a teenager who suffers from severe cerebral palsy. She can’t move her arms or legs much and she lacks fine motor control that most people take for granted. Even if she wants to speak, or move her fingers or toes in a certain direction, she can’t.
Ganga lives at in Kolkata, a home for orphaned and abandoned children that welcomes those with “differing abilities and disabilities”. Dr Michelle Harrison, who moved from the US to India in 2006 to start Shishur Sevay, is like a mother to her.
Ganga relies heavily on her eyes to communicate. When she wants to go somewhere, she points with her eyes. When she needs something, she yells wordlessly.
“She only had her eyes and they followed everything going on. She literally could only speak with her eyes. She wanted to interact with everyone, and she wanted to be in the classroom with the others, focusing on the teacher,” Dr. Harrison tells Gadgets 360.
Communicating with others was extremely difficult for her until three years ago, when Dr Harrison took a leap of faith and bought an eye tracker called Tobii Dynavox PCEye Go. The device cost around Rs. 2 lakh, and when Dr. Harrison bought it using her own savings, there was no way for her to even get a demo with the device to see if Ganga would benefit from it.
The Tobii Dynavox PCEye Go has now been discontinued and replaced with a new tracker called PCEye Mini, currently available in India via . Gadgets 360 got a chance to check out the PCEye Mini and it appeared to be fairly easy to set up and use. The eye tracker is a compact device that snugly rests against the bezel of your laptop, just above the keyboard. It fits nicely between the keyboard and the screen, ensuring that it doesn’t block any part of the screen.
It ships with a software to help people type with their eyes or point to specific requirements such as water, food, or bathroom — you confirm these choices by staring at a point for a couple of seconds, when the circle on screen fills up and “clicks” on your choice. The device connects to your laptop via a USB cable and once the software is set up, it needs to be calibrated to every user’s eyes. It lets you create multiple profiles so that you don’t have to calibrate it for each person every single time.
“I was hooked on the strong possibility that the Tobii eye tracker could break the isolation of being unable to communicate what is on your mind,” says Dr Harrison. “I remember thinking, ‘How does someone like this ever share something like a dream they had in the night?’ So, I took a risk.” That leap of faith changed Ganga’s life.
The staff members at Shishur Sevay asked her what she wanted and she said she needs coffee. After she had a cup of coffee, Dr Harrison says Ganga perked up and active throughout the morning. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult this would’ve been for her without the eye tracker and the app.
Without the eye tracker, it would have been very difficult for Ganga to express her feelings. Dr Harrison says Ganga has now learned how to ask for things like coffee using the Tobii Dynavox. One morning Ganga kept using the eye tracker, which has an accompanying software that can be installed on any Windows machine, to say she was tired.
“I am the centre of her universe. Much of the time she uses the Tobii to say, ‘I want to go to mommy’s office’, ‘does mommy love me’, or ‘I want to buy a gift for mommy’,” says Dr Harrison. “I sort of expected it [Ganga’s affection] to lessen but it hasn’t. She still waits for me before going to sleep at night.”
The staff members use some other cues to double-check whether the things Ganga shows on the Tobii app are what she wants. For instance, Ganga sticks her tongue out when she is thirsty. Dr Harrison says this has taught them that Ganga is learning how to use the app. “All of this requires navigating. You go to the home page, categories, feelings, tired,” says Dr Harrison. “Go back to categories, select food, and then coffee. She is learning how to navigate.”
“That part has been slower than I thought it would be,” she adds. “It tires out her eyes.”
In spite of that, Dr Harrison says the Tobii Dynavox has been of great help to Ganga. “We tried adaptive keyboards, she didn’t have fine motor control to use them,” she explains. “I tried all kinds of orthopaedic splints. She wanted to try working with her toes but her toes went in the wrong direction.”
The biggest loss for these kids is not being able to share these things — who I am, etc. They have no means of saying any of that.
They even tried a head tracker, but it didn’t work for Ganga because the device required her head to be still. “The thing I love about Tobii is it really allows for a lot of head movement, it relies on eyes and it allows for head movement,” explains Dr Harrison. “It’s very hard for her [Ganga] to keep her head still and she hates being confined. We’ve tried collars to keep her head straight but she hates those.”
Dr. Harrison hopes that eventually Ganga will be able to write a few sentences using the Tobii, and she acknowledges that it will take time. “The biggest loss for these kids is not being able to share these things — who I am, etc. They have no means of saying any of that,” Dr. Harrison says. “[Using the eye tracker] she can tell us how she is, what she needs. She has a sense of having some ability to control the world and to communicate.”
Another girl at Shishur Sevay, Bornali, also uses the Tobii device to communicate. Dr Harrison says ever since she started doing that, Bornali’s temper tantrums have gone away. Dr. Harrison says with a laugh that while both Ganga and Bornali are quite happy to communicate with staff members, they show no interest in talking to each other via the Tobii.
Dr Harrison hopes that in the future these girls will be able to learn how to use computers via their eye tracking devices. and the hope is that girls like Bornali and Ganga won’t be restricted to using just one or two apps that support eye tracking.