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Steve Gleason inspires WSU students to help ALS patients communicate better

A group of Cougs is working together with Team Gleason to improve communication through predictive eye-tracking software for typing and text-to-speech.

Steve Gleason has inspired a lot of people through his fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and that includes a professor and group of students at WSU who are developing predictive eye-tracking software that they one day hope to release as an open-source and, most importantly, free alternative to the costly options available today.

WSU computer sciences professor Dave Bakken (a Coug himself, class of 1985) and his team of seniors -- profiled in this month's Washington State Magazine -- are working together with Team Gleason, the former football player's foundation that is "deeply committed to helping people with ALS live productive, inspired lives by providing access to life-affirming events and assistive technology until a cure is found."

Currently, the assistive technology that allows ALS sufferers to use their eyes to communicate is both slow and expensive. For example, the technology Gleason used to type this Sports Illustrated column allows him to "crank out about 20 words per minute." What kind of speed is that? "For 4,500 words, that's almost four hours to finish this column." Gleason's software is top-of-the-line stuff and costs about $20,000.

Bakken and his team believe they can do better than that using the same concept that allows your smartphone to predict your next word when you're typing a text message.

From the magazine:

Currently, the students are putting the software on PUPIL, a 3-D printed set of glasses that connects to a computer to translate eye movement into computer action. The program will be open source with no royalties, making it freely available to the public.

By May, the students aim to have prototypes and potentially a tablet that ALS patients could test.

"The scope and impact of this project drew me in," says senior Calin Scott. "Traditionally senior projects are done for a company, but this one could be life-changing for ALS patients and their families."

"Making this kind of technology available to all ALS patients is important," says Gail Gleason, Steve's mother, who works for the WSU Athletic Department and is providing support for the senior project. "There is so much despair when a person loses their ability to speak to ALS, and assistive technology that gives them the ability to communicate gives them some hope."

There's a lot of cynicism surrounding the academic world, but when they're at their best, colleges and universities across the country do important work in the areas of research and development that have real world impacts in areas of need. This is most certainly that, and makes me incredibly proud of my university.

You can learn more about WSU Team Gleason here. If you're inclined to get involved, they need help!

Go Cougs!