For any person, the onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and associated loss of muscle function is a heartbreaking event, but for an artist the loss of creative expression must be felt keenly. Members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, the Graffiti Research Lab, and The Ebeling Group communities have teamed-up with legendary LA graffiti writer, publisher and activist Tony Quan, aka Tempt One to develop a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system that will allow graffiti writers and artists with paralysis to draw using only their eyes. Their product, the Eyewriter, recently won the Interactive Award at the celebrated Brit Insurance Design Awards.

ALS is a form of motor neurone disease, a fatal, neurodegenerative disease caused by the degeneration of motor neurons; the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement. The condition, often called Lou Gehrig's Disease, causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body as both the upper and lower motor neurons degenerate, ceasing to send messages to muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, develop fasciculations (twitches) due to denervation, and eventually atrophy. Tony Quan was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, and like many other ALS patients, for instance renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, was left almost completely physically paralyzed except for his eyes.

The Eyewriter project is an ongoing collaborative research effort to empower people who are suffering from ALS with creative technologies. It has two aims; firstly, the hardware component - to make the most simple and inexpensive eye-tracking headset possible; secondly, to integrate this with free and open source EyeWriter software for commercially available eye tracking devices.

The first time Tony Quan aka Tempt One used the Eyewriter he was thrilled. “That was the first time I’ve drawn anything since 2003! It feels like taking a breath after being held underwater for 5 minutes.”

The information for constructing the headset has been made freely available on the Eye Writer website and they are keen to see what modifications other people make to the design, thereby encouraging the sharing of information. Their version costs only US$50 to make and is constructed using a hacked PS3 Eye and a cheap pair of sunglasses, used in combination with a computer. A PS3 eye tracks movement of the artists' pupil and translates this to the screen.

Their long-term goal is to create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients from around the world who will use local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art.

Some of these international initiatives have seen them taking the know-how to Mumbai, where they have blogged their progress haggling prices and building the headset from local materials. Additionally they teamed up with Recyclism initiative "Printball" to recreate Temptone's Eyewriter art via a paintball gun. The Eyewriter team have also undertaken low-key publicity events 'tagging' buildings in downtown LA via projections created in real time from Tony's hospital bed. They are currently looking to recruit hackers and developers interested in new audiences.

The core development team on the project consists of Tony Quan, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Zach Lieberman, Theo Watson and James Powderly, members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Research Lab. They credit founding support from The Ebeling Group and the Not Impossible Foundation, and addition support from Parsons Communication Design & Technology.

The Brit Insurance Design of the Year Award is an international competition honoring design excellence in products, ecodesign, interaction design, packaging, strategy, research and concepts, and was judged this year by a panel including sculptor Anthony Gormley, designer Tom Dixon and journalist Janet Street Porter. Winning the Interactive Brit Insurance Design Award will elevate their project to a wider arena and hopefully stimulate funding and publicity to further their product development.

Of the project Tony Quan said: “Art is a tool of empowerment and social change, and I consider myself blessed to be able to create and use my work to promote health reform, bring awareness about ALS and help others.”

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