When people are set to receive eye-tracking technology, they are facing devastating challenges:

Neurodegenerative disease, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), leads to progressive muscle weakness and paralysis. As patients lose their ability to speak, move a mouse, or express their thoughts, they and their families are often left bewildered and overwhelmed.

Yet, the technology is not standardized and trying to customize it to the patient can be frustrating and exhausting, especially for the patient. The devices, which help patients perform a variety of functions, such as clicking and scrolling, have to track a person’s gaze perfectly in order to meet their users’ needs.

As part of their senior design project through the Industrial Design Clinic, a WSU student team developed a testing robot that could help alleviate some of the challenges of matching the technology with people. The project aims to test eye trackers under real-world conditions with the goal of reducing time, effort, and cost associated with customizing the technology to patients.

Looking like an extravagant Halloween decoration, the sophisticated robot, which has artificial eyes and a Jason-like facemask, is controlled by an X-box controller and uses simulated facial features to test the eye-tracking devices.

“With our design, we hope to provide a foundation in which eye tracking manufacturers can improve their designs to better suit their clientele,” said Ryan Magoon, who worked on the project and graduated in December.

“Eye-tracking technology is a really important part of palliative care,” said Jon Campbell, a senior research software development engineer at Microsoft Research who advised the students on the project. “It’s the difference for patients between being able to communicate or not.”

Eye trackers work by emitting near-infrared light toward users’ pupils. The detectable reflections in both the pupil and cornea are registered, and then the eye tracker calculates the physical location of the user’s gaze on the display screen, allowing the users to operate a computer without physical input.

Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience

Advancements in eye-tracking technology are one of the many ways that Washington State University and its Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience are offering for families to continue finding purpose, extend quality of life and lessen stress and fatigue.

The work is motivated by WSU alumnus Steve Gleason, who helped take WSU to the Rose Bowl in 1997 and whose diving punt block for the New Orleans Saints in 2006 rallied the hurricane-ravaged city. Five years later, he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 34. The terminal neuromuscular disease has since left him immobile and reliant on eye-controlled technology to communicate.

When it comes to developing a cure for ALS and other debilitating brain diseases like Parkinson’s, researchers are still seeking answers to how the brain works at its most basic level.

What’s more, the incidence of these diseases is expected to soar as the population ages, affecting millions of Americans. These diseases account for billions of dollars in health care costs annually.

In January 2019, WSU Health Sciences and Team Gleason announced formal collaboration around the Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience. The Institute is answering the call of patients and families to expand treatment options, develop care innovations, and to find a cure.

The students’ goal was to design and manufacture a rig that could test the trackers, using an artificial face and eyes, and moving the eyes with the X-box controller. Because of the complexity of infrared eye tracking, they quickly found out that they needed to work with anatomically correct artificial eyes. They also needed a real, life-like face that moves like people do, and they had to give their robotic eyes a full range of motion. Eventually, the team settled on a design that utilizes animatronic technology.

The students also had to finish the project under COVID-19 conditions, often interacting remotely while finishing a hands-on project.

“We learned that by planning out our work effectively, each member could play a vital role in the design process, even under the COVID-19 restrictions,” said Magoon. “We also obtained valuable communication skills when working closely with a client. Our design had to meet specific requirements set by both WSU and our client.”

Campbell, a WSU alumnus who is a member of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Executive Council and on the board of WSU’s Steve Gleason Institute of Neuroscience, appreciates the importance of the hands-on and real-world experience for the students.

“Coursework is important but translating that to a real problem is invaluable and can’t be replicated by the traditional lecture or lab class structure,” he said. “A good, meaningful project and a quality mentor can be the difference between a mediocre experience and a spectacular one.”

Campbell served as the eye tracking subject matter expert and primary customer and mentor for the students. He credited the student team as the best he’s worked with in a decade of working with students.

“ALS is a really difficult diagnosis, so it was important that the students understood that this wasn’t a typical project,” he said. “The students used that reality as a motivating factor and their results demonstrated that understanding. They were able to succeed in creating a system where many other teams – both student and professional – had failed.”

In addition to Magoon, the students on the project included Joseph Ponti, Michael Lewis, Leif Harfst, Andy Mei, Lance Harris, and James Zimmer. They were advised by Chuck Pezeshki, professor in Mechanical and Materials engineering, and David Koch, teaching assistant in the School of MME.

The project will continue this semester. The team hopes that future groups will improve on his group’s design, using higher quality components, custom design features, and software upgrades.

“We are very proud of our work and would love to see it passed on to future groups,” the team members said in an e-mail. “We have provided a foundation for the next team to expand on our current design.”

“This project is a small piece in the larger puzzle of bringing additional testing to the eye tracking space,” added Campbell. “The opportunity to improve outcomes for the various parties is super important.”