With all of the ice bucket challenges hitting the country to raise funds and awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease," developers at Microsoft are focusing on a practical way to help ALS-stricken patients: with an eye-controlled wheelchair.
ALS is "is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed."
Microsoft began work on this new type of wheelchair to fulfill a request made by former New Orleans Saints star, Steve Gleason. In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, but was determined to bring hope to others facing a bleak future and raise awareness on ways to help fight the disease.
Due to the effects of the disease, Gleason developed difficulty speaking and, as a result, Microsoft created a system that allows Gleason to type using his eyes. In only a few years, Gleason's health has declined to the point that he is unable to operate the simple joy stick on his wheelchair.
Due to his new challenges and further deteriorating health, Gleason approached Microsoft in July to see if they could create a wheelchair controlled by a person's eyes. Gleason was a guest at Microsoft's weeklong "hackathon" in which more than 10,000 employees came together to research and develop new technology.
The Eye Gaze Team set out to assist Gleason and the result is incredible. "It was a true One Microsoft effort; this could never have happened without a hackathon," said Matthew Mack, one of the leaders of the Eye Gaze team. The "cross-discipline" team, he said, includes researchers, engineers, program managers, designers and media professionals from Windows, Microsoft Research, Kinect, Operation System, Customer Service and Support, and Application & Services.
Through the work of this diverse team, they created a way to use a Kinect sensor Microsoft robotics research and eye-tracking technology, creating a user interface installed on a Surface Pro 3 to navigate the wheelchair, and to safely maneuver when it detects an object.
Gleason was absolutely astounded by the result and wrote, "Keep this rolling." The product still needs more work, but Microsoft is well on its way to assisting ALS patients everywhere.