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Eye-controlled tablet lets paraplegic vets complete tasks

John Cincar, who cannot use his limbs, demonstrates

John Cincar, who cannot use his limbs, demonstrates using a device that allows paralyzed individuals to control a computer tablet using only their eyes, at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, where he lives. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

John Cincar, a resident at the Long Island State Veterans Home, played a version of video ping-pong on a computer tablet earlier this month, moving a digital “paddle” to intercept a pixel “ball.”

“I love it,” he said, as he manipulated the paddle into a corner of the screen just in time to keep the ball in play. “Now I will be able to do things, and not just sit and watch television.”

In fact, watching lots of television has been pretty much his lot for the past five years, after unsuccessful spinal surgery following a fall down a flight of stairs left the Army veteran, 65, virtually unable to move any of his limbs.

But last week, a local businessman arranged a donation to the nursing home of technology that allows paralyzed individuals to control a computer tablet using only their eyes.

Patients who until now have depended on nursing home staff to do the simplest of tasks for them, such as turning the pages of a newspaper, surfing the Internet, playing video games, or even changing the channel while watching TV, now have a way of doing some of these things without having to call for help.

“I’m excited about using it,” said Cincar, a former textile machine mechanic who said he read newspapers daily before his accident robbed him of the use of his limbs. “I’ll be able to find out what’s going on in the world.”

Staff at the nursing home in Stony Brook say the device will be a boon to the half dozen or so residents there whose disabilities have left them unable to execute even simple movements.

Michele Hyland, the nursing facility’s director of rehabilitative services, began researching the device when a Vietnam veteran residing there became so debilitated by multiple sclerosis he could no longer use a call button to summon help.

Depression is a particularly grave challenge to nursing home residents, said Hyland, whose own father succumbed to the slow paralysis imposed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Already twice as likely than their nonveteran counterparts to suffer from major depression, veterans who find themselves living in nursing homes are especially vulnerable because of restrictions that limit their ability to make their own decisions, or even to care for themselves.

Severe afflictions, such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS and spinal cord injuries, particularly threaten to bind sufferers in a cocoon of despair.

“This device gives them a glimmer of hope,” said Jonathan Spier, deputy director at the Stony Brook care facility. “It makes them more independent, which is a big deal in a nursing home. We’re always looking to use technology to provide a better quality of life.”

The $13,000 unit’s donation was arranged by local bowling magnate John LaSpina. He is chairman of Bowlers to Veterans Link, a national bowling organization that since 1942 has raised money to support recreational therapies for veterans. A charity tournament that culminated over the weekend raised some $50,000 from the Maple Family Centers bowling alleys LaSpina owns in Coram, Farmingdale, Rockville Centre and Flushing, LaSpina said.

The system, known as the Eyegaze Edge, uses a mounted camera to capture the user’s eye movements. Software allows the tablet computer to ignore unintended eye motion, or random reflections on the eye’s surface.

To use the system, a person “types” by staring at a letter on the screen’s video keyboard, until a robotic voice reads the letter the user is looking at. Users can also use their eyes to select preprogrammed phrases, or to select icons by moving a cursor across the tablet’s screen.

But becoming proficient takes some getting used to. Users must hold their gaze on the selected letter long enough for the tablet to register it. Cincar stumbled at times, and had to double back while attempting to type some words.

Still, after trying out the tablet for about 20 minutes, he seemed optimistic it would open doors to the outside work that his disabilities until now have mostly closed. He said he is even looking forward to using it to help him learn a foreign language.

Glancing up from the tablet, Cincar smiled at LaSpina, who was visiting the nursing home for the device’s unveiling.

“God bless you for what you are doing,” Cincar said. “I like this a lot.”

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