When Vision Becomes Verbal

Meet Julius Sweetland: a 32-year-old software developer in London who has released a game changing, cutting edge assistive technology software for free.

Four years of his hard work, determination, and precious free time manifest in OptiKey: a program for Windows that allows for complete control over a computer using only your eyes. It’s impressive enough on its own, but it’s especially crucial for people with motor and speech limitations.

Eye tracking interfaces aren’t new themselves—in fact, some have been around since the 80s—but they are relegated to an ivory tower behind outlandish prices, ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $17,000, with quality and modernity being the variable factors there. One user remarked that since these software companies have a corner on the market, they are able to get away with murderous prices without updating the technology or interface, leaving their customers frustrated.

While the hardware for eye tracking is relatively affordable at $99 for the cheapest, there’s little-to-no point without accessible software to go alongside it. So, Sweetland saw the problem, and he decided to solve it. OptiKey—which has been hailed as faster, fresher, and more intuitive than competing software—is free forever, he says. (It’s also Open Source, which means developers from all over the world can access the code of the software to improve it.)

We got the opportunity to ask Sweetland some questions, giving us a better understanding of the project as a whole.

Law Technology Today: How did you come to understand the need for OptiKey?

Julius Sweetland: My aunt died of motor neuron disease (ALS) a little over four years ago. It’s a really destructive disease which leaves your mind intact, but your body increasingly useless. In its ultimate form it can leave people trapped in their own bodies, only able to move their eyes.

I felt that there must be better technology out there to help people in these situations, but everything I could find was inadequate or incredibly expensive. I found this very unfair and started thinking about what I might be able to do to level the playing field.

LTT: Can you explain what “Open Source” means, and how that may shape the product?

JS: “Open Source” means that the code that I have written—the source code itself—is available for anyone to inspect, play with, and ideally improve. The idea behind open source software is to attract other software developers to collaborate and help drive the whole project forward. I’m already seeing this decision bear fruit, as people from all over the world have been finding and fixing bugs and adding features. The future of this project is going to rely on these people as I work full-time and often have very limited capacity.

LTT: What differentiates OptiKey from existing eye tracking software?

JS: There are some features and solutions which are unique to OptiKey, but the fact that it is FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is a huge differentiator, allowing me to support the cheapest eye tracking hardware on the market without having one eye on a bottom line, or pleasing investors. I can focus 100% on making decisions, which I think will benefit the end users the most.

LTT: Do you think OptiKey has the potential to function in a workplace setting? Could it do so now?

JS: For an able-bodied person with no motor or speech limitations, I would say no. Lots of companies spend a lot of time and effort trying to convince everyone that eye tracking, touch screens, or VR will be how we will all be interacting with our computers by next year, but the mouse and keyboard survive over and over again. They’re cheap and they’re effective.

OptiKey can, however, give someone with speech and/or motor limitations the ability to work as well as communicate. My goal with OptiKey has always been to not assume that the end user lacks ability, only that they lack the means to apply themselves. I didn’t dumb anything down in OptiKey, although you can limit its capabilities so that it is appropriate for the user. I want people who may have been power users of their PCs before ALS to be power users again.

LTT: OptiKey is currently available in English and French. How many other languages are you and others working on translating it into?

JS: I am working with a fantastic team of volunteers who are currently working on about 20 languages. French has been released and German is being tested at the moment. The rest will follow as quickly as possible.

LTT: In your opinion, why should businesses—including law firms and law schools—care about providing assistive technology, including OptiKey?

JS: Some disabilities are effectively skin deep. Where would modern physics be without Stephen Hawkins? Who knows how many great legal minds are trapped out there?

LTT: Are there future plans to expand OptiKey onto other operating systems?

JS: At the moment, I can’t commit to this as it’s going to be a huge and complex task. I need to keep my involvement at a manageable level and make sure I pace myself and get to spend time with my young family. Having said that, it’s an open source project, so the solution could come from anywhere at any time.

LTT: What does someone need to get started?

JS: A Windows laptop, computer, or tablet running Vista SP 2, or later (which includes Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10). That’s it. You can try OptiKey using your mouse, or with head movement using your webcam without spending any money. If you want to control it using your eyes, you’ll need an eye tracker, which start at $99.

Law Technology Today would like to extend immense thanks to Julius for taking the time to speak with us; we’re very excited to see the future of OptiKey unfold. Go to OptiKey.org for all the details, to the OptiKey GitHub page to inspect and/or contribute to the code, and follow on Twitter @OptiKey_Julius.

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