For the past seven years, one man receiving care from LifeStream, a Massachusetts-​​based human ser­vices orga­ni­za­tion, has only been able to com­mu­ni­cate by blinking his eyes in response to yes-​​or-​​no ques­tions. He has cog­ni­tive aware­ness but is par­a­lyzed with respect to nearly all of his vol­un­tary motor mus­cles due to severe injuries he suf­fered in a car accident.

His con­di­tion is called locked-​​in syn­drome, which affects more than 50,000 people each year as a result of trau­matic brain injuries, strokes, or other afflic­tions. Over the past year, six North­eastern elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering seniors have been devel­oping a better com­mu­ni­ca­tion system for indi­vid­uals such as the man at LifeStream, who tested the group’s device himself.

Existing sys­tems in which there’s eye-​​tracking through infrared can be extremely expen­sive,” said Colin Sul­livan, E’14. “One of the sys­tems we looked at cost upwards of $10,000. Some­times health insur­ance won’t cover it, and even if it does there’s a large co-​​pay.”

For their engi­neering design cap­stone project, the stu­dents cre­ated an alter­na­tive device that costs a mere $223. And that’s before opti­miza­tion and com­mer­cial­iza­tion, both of which could decrease the price even fur­ther, said group member Robin Yohannan, E’14.

Instead of detecting the loca­tion of the pupil or using expen­sive brain-​​computer inter­faces, the team’s EOG Assisted Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Device takes advan­tage of a unique char­ac­ter­istic of the human eye­ball. “The eye has an intrinsic prop­erty where the front of the eye is more pos­i­tively charged than the back of the eye,” Yohannan said. When the eyes move to the left or the right, elec­trodes taped to either side of the head detect a voltage dif­fer­en­tial based on that polarity, he explained.

Team member Ryan Whyte, E’14, worked on the hard­ware of the system, building off a cir­cuit he learned about in a bio­med­ical elec­tronics course taught by elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering assis­tant pro­fessor Mark Niedre. The cir­cuit fil­ters and ampli­fies the sig­nals coming from the elec­trodes and turns them into rea­son­able inputs for the arduino micro­con­troller, for which Yohannan and Jef­frey Mui, E’14, wrote the code.

This allows us to trans­late the dig­ital sig­nals into reli­able eye move­ments on the screen,” Mui explained.

Group leader Spencer Wen­ners, E’14, worked on the graph­ical user inter­face, which takes the dig­ital output from the arduino and con­verts it into a cursor moving around a com­puter screen. Now, the user can con­trol that cursor using nothing but the move­ments of his eyeball.

He looks at an on-​​screen key­board, moves the cursor to a letter, then blinks his eyes for two sec­onds or more to select that letter. In this way, the device allows users to type out mes­sages to their loved ones and care givers.

Sul­livan, who also works at the Center for Research Inno­va­tion, worked on the testing and debug­ging of the system as well as moving the tech­nology through the pro­vi­sional patenting process.

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Waleed Meleis, the cap­stone team’s fac­ulty adviser, has high hopes for the future of the device. The project will live on in the newly devel­oped stu­dent group Enabling Engi­neering, which Meleis started in an effort to extend the reach and lifespan of promising tech­nolo­gies that aim to help the dis­abled com­mu­nity. LifeStream, where the locked-​​in patient lives, is an offi­cial sup­porter of the group.

The six seniors, for their part, have big post-​​graduation plans. Wen­ners, for instance, will be taking on a job as a product devel­op­ment engi­neer at Intel, and Mui is get­ting more seri­ously involved in a non­profit group that develops pros­thetic hands for chil­dren. Even though they’re moving on from their cap­stone project, the stu­dents said they’ve learned lessons from their expe­ri­ence that will stay with them throughout their engi­neering careers.

We all took four or five years of engi­neering classes and trans­formed that into some­thing that can actu­ally help the com­mu­nity,” Wen­ners said.