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In the Blink of an Eye
June 17, 2010   
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Blinking is often the last movement left to a paralyzed person. Aleksandra Królak, a researcher at the Technical University of £ód¼, has created a computer program that allows paralyzed people to communicate with the world.

The program, called b-Link, is now used by over 12,000 people worldwide, according to Królak.

While working on her doctorate, Królak measured fatigue in drivers and air traffic controllers, whose eyes get tired quickly from gazing attentively at one spot for long periods of time. At the same time, she watched a film in which a paralyzed man communicated by blinking to indicate a letter of the alphabet shown to him by a nurse. “I thought that the nurse could be replaced by a computer,” Królak says.

Virtual keyboard
Królak started out with designing the most important part of the system, the virtual keyboard. It cannot interfere in browsing or using a word processor, which is why it is semitransparent and occupies just a portion of the screen. If necessary it can be moved by blinking. Letters on this keyboard are arranged in six rows of 10-11 columns, which are sequentially highlighted in green. A long blink chooses a column, then the cursor highlights the available letters in the row. Another long blink chooses a letter and pastes it in the required place in the browser or word processor.

Królak had some problems with programming the software for an internet camera to register facial and eye movements. Everything seemingly worked in the first version of the software, but only for the movements of the researcher herself. Now b-Link is configured in such a way that it first needs to be “paired” to each separate user. This means setting up the computer in the exact position where it will be used and this is the only moment when the assistance of a fully-abled person is required. The computer then registers the open and shut eye images of the user.

Afterwards, each time the computer is started, it compares the live image to that stored in memory. If it matches, the user is shown a message confirming that the computer is ready for use.

Orange Labs and side menu
While working on the program, Królak and her team, which includes four students, joined Orange Labs, a worldwide network of research labs run by France Telecom. This helped the team finish their software. A separate side menu, containing a virtual mouse, was created together with other researchers. It makes it possible to move the cursor after selecting an arrow, contains a left and right mouse button, and includes a text highlighter.

Alt and Shift keys are included, as is a menu allowing easy access to certain programs. One blink is enough to start a predetermined application: word processing program, mail, messaging, browser or spreadsheet.

Another menu makes it possible to bookmark the most often visited web pages. Yet another is reserved for the settings of the application itself: the rate of highlighting for rows and letters or cursor speed. A further one contains a magnifying glass for the part of the screen with the cursor. The final one, closes the program or shuts down the computer, as well as containing one additional functionality: thanks to it, people who have retained the use of a finger, for example, can click instead of blinking.

Download for free
All that is needed to use b-Link is a normal computer, or a laptop with an internet camera. The program is available for free from http://b-link.sourceforge.net or from the website of telecommunications company Telekomunikacja Polska SA, which is the program’s official sponsor.

Work on the project lasted nearly a year. The program has been extensively tested by people with disabilities and psychologists. Polish doctors working with disabled people have been installing it for their patients, Królak says. It has been adapted to several languages, including the necessary modifications to the keyboard layout, as it is important that the most frequently used letters in each language are highlighted most frequently.

Królak says she continues to receive feedback from users on which functionalities need further expansion and so wants to continue development. She also has ideas about other possible uses, for example a virtual remote control for a television set, or an interface enabling a person to switch the lights on and off by blinking.

Danuta K. Gruszczyńska
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