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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 12:10 GMT
PC eye-control for severely disabled
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Iriscom on laptop computer, Iriscom
The camera takes the place of the touch pad
Award-winning Spanish technology that lets severely disabled people control a computer using eye movement could soon be available in the UK.

The Iriscom, which emulates mouse movement by tracking the iris, is already on sale in Spanish-speaking countries and Portugal.

Iriscom moves the mouse pointer by tracking a person's eye movement and mouse clicks are performed by blinking.

It also has an on-screen keyboard so users can input text.

It can be used by anyone who has control of one eye, including people wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Iris interest

Pedro Palomo, Managing Director of Iriscom, says the system was developed to respond to the needs of people with amiotrophic lateral sclerosis.

This is a degenerative condition that eventually results in people only being able to move their eyes.

"I started looking around for a solution and nothing was available," he told BBC News Online.

"So together with some guys in Arizona, we developed this system which took us over a year."

In Spain Iriscom costs 6,000 euros (4,200).

The system consists of a camera placed on the computer and focused on the user's eye.

The minimum chip needed is a Pentium III with a firewire port.

The disability charity, Scope, says it is potentially interested.

At first people are worried about levels of concentration, but in fact the system's very relaxing to use
Pedro Palomo
"It would be useful for people with cerebral palsy or similar conditions, anyone with little or no motor control," said Adrian Boylan, Scope's technology specialist.

"Computer users who can't control a keyboard and whose speech isn't clear enough to use voice recognition technology would potentially benefit."

Mr Palomo says Iriscom can also be used by people who are unable to blink voluntarily: leaving the pointer on a part of the screen will perform a click.

And where the 'target' for the mouse click is very small, Iriscom magnifies the area to make the operation easier.

Careful use

But Mr Boylan said there are potential drawbacks to using iris-control.

"We'll have to see how it performs in a variety of lighting conditions," he said.

"There are also issues of cost, the availability of initial support and training, and people's ability to concentrate for long period of time will take some adjustment."

"And thinking longer term, the assumption has to be that iris scanning is harmless. But do we know that it is safe to do it for several hours everyday?"

Pedro Palomo has sold 15 systems in Spain so far and says user feedback has been very positive.

"I tailor every system to suit each user and once it's installed I make sure they and anyone who assists them knows how to use it," he said.

"At first people are worried about levels of concentration, but in fact the system's very relaxing to use.

"Once people overcome their initial anxiety they can use it for five or six hours, provided they take short breaks every 20 minutes or so."

Iriscom is not the only such product available but it is considerably cheaper than some rival systems.

Scope's Adrian Boylan believes that the time that it takes for cutting-edge technology solutions to reach a mass market is now very short.

"Look at voice recognition. Five or six years ago it was still experimental and quite expensive but now it's mainstream," he said.

"This could easily go the same way."

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