Technology - Here's looking at you
For pupils with limited mobility, eye gaze software - where computers can be controlled using only your eyes - makes it possible for them to really get stuck into technology. Many of these pupils are unable to control standard computers without significant effort, and even using switches or joysticks can be enormously tiring and offer fewer options than a mouse.
Pupils can now use eye gaze to access anything from specialist word processing applications to music creation programmes. Eye gaze-controlled computers track where you are looking on the screen and make the on-screen cursor follow. Resting on the same point on the screen for a set period, activating a switch, or even blinking, can be configured to have the same effect as a mouse click.
This technology has been successfully used by people with a variety of disabilities, including degenerative conditions and cerebral palsy. Until quite recently, users had to sit still to be able to operate systems of this type.
However, an increasing number of eye gaze-control systems can now be operated even by someone with quite severe involuntary movement.
The tracking component in eye-control equipment, whereby a computer is able to detect where you are looking on screen, has also been useful in wider education research. In Finland, for example, researchers have experimented with using eye-tracking software to create language programmes that are responsive to the learner. The software can detect when a particular word is being looked at for longer than normal and can bring up a dictionary for instant translation.
Helen Oakley, 14, from Milton Keynes has been using eye-gaze equipment for about six years. She has a rare inherited metabolic disorder that leaves her with very little co-ordinated movement and makes speech difficult. Helen was given access to the equipment by the Ace Centre, Oxford, as part of the user trails for the European Union-funded Cogain project (Communication by Gaze Interaction).
She has been helping developers to create appropriate tools and can now access a host of education applications, which allows her to do everything from sending emails to creative writing.
Helen's mother, Sandra, says the eye-gaze equipment has become an important part of her daughter's everyday life. For instance, the equipment enables Helen to play games such as chess or draughts with her brother, without being reliant on him to move the pieces. This has done wonders for her confidence.
There are limitations to this equipment, however. Although these systems are becoming smaller, Helen's current unit can't easily be moved between classrooms, or between school and home, so during term time it has to stay in school.
Using the equipment in the classroom also brings its own challenges, as the concentration required makes it tiring to use for long periods of time. Equally, it is time consuming to write large amounts of text, meaning that Helen still relies on somebody else to take and upload notes for her to edit. And finally, there is the cost. Eye-gaze software is expensive, costing #163;5,000-#163;11,000.
So could it become mainstream? Already the military has experimented with the technology for jet pilots as an additional means of control. And as games consoles such as the PlayStation and Xbox become more sophisticated, it seems likely that the computer game market will pick up on it.
As prices come down and the technology improves further, many more people will be able to benefit from its use.
By Kieron Kirkland, a researcher at Futurelab, and Dr Mick Donegan, deputy academic director and principal research fellow in assistive technology for SMARTlab, University of East London. www.futurelab.org.uk, www.smartlab.uk.com.