The Seeing-Eye Mouse
An innovative camera helps the disabled roam online
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Click on the video above to watch a video about Margrit Betke’s work.
Every day, our world grows more digital and more of our lives migrates to an electronic format. But Margrit Betke, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of computer science, believes the networked world isn’t nearly as inclusive as it ought to be.
“The community of people with severe disabilities is not really well served by computer science,” Betke says. Many people impaired by diseases like multiple sclerosis or ALS can’t type Google searches. They can’t play video games, and they can’t click on a friend’s e-mail.
So, in collaboration with James Gips, a Boston College professor of computer science, and several of her students, Betke has spent the last eight years developing a “camera mouse” that greatly expands accessibility to the digital world. The camera mouse software uses a computer webcam to lock onto and track a chosen section of the user’s face — a nostril or the tip of an eyebrow, for example — and then links that person’s head movement to a cursor on the screen. Move right and the cursor goes right. Move left and it reverses direction. Pause for several seconds over a link and it clicks.
Betke and her fellow researchers have adapted a camera mouse to work with several popular programs, such as Microsoft Word. They’ve also created custom software that allows computer users with disabilities to type e-mails, edit photographs, create music, and fight space aliens, among other activities.
In spring 2007, after a failed attempt to build a company around the new technology, Betke and Gips decided to give camera mouse away online. These days, about 2,500 people download it every month. The researchers get frequent e-mails from people as far away as Australia and Uzbekistan, thanking them and asking for technical assistance.
“With software, there’s always an issue of maintenance,” says Betke. Requests to fix a software bug or make camera mouse compatible with the latest operating system always get highest priority. A request for a camera mouse version of Flight Simulator, on the other hand, becomes a candidate for a class project. Betke’s students also work as volunteers in places like the Boston Home, a nursing care center for adults with neurodegenerative diseases, whose residents have used camera mouse.
What’s next? Betke hopes to make camera mouse more adaptable to the wide range of mobility limitations, arranging navigation buttons to match a person’s most controlled range of motion, for example, or accommodating the slow diminishment of a user’s skills.
“It’s a challenge that is facing all human-computer interface research,” says Betke. “We can adapt our own system with user profiles and all that, but to actually have the computer figure it out for us and help us along is a very different story.”
This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Bostonia.2 Comments