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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.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu. Alan Wong can be reached at alanwong@bu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Bostonia.


2 Comments on The Seeing-Eye Mouse

  • Anonymous on 04.16.2009 at 9:56 am

    Wow! You guys rock! You are most certainly divinely guided. keep up your good work. You make me proud to be a human at the same time you are.

  • Bernard Taylor on 05.04.2009 at 2:09 pm

    Use of the camera mouse at home

    I have downloaded the camera mouse tool to teach myself how to use the system and discover the sensitivity of the curser movement when linked to a facial point. I was amazed at the degree of movement and the level of control one had in using the system. I linked it to the computers own on screen keyboard using the automatic click system and was able to type data onto the screen. My reason for testing the system is to teach my niece who has some mental challenges, no verbal communication and limited physical control of her limbs another way of communicating with us. My experience is limited but I can already see the possibilities of this system for people trapped either physically or mentally in their own world. I shall continue to learn and hopefully pass on that learning to my niece. I have a problem opening up programmes such as word as this requires a double click to start.

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