It all started with a hackathon.
Back in 2014, a team of Microsoft employees developed the EyeGaze, a wheelchair that users could move through eye movement and a Surface tablet.
The project was a response to a challenge from ex-NFL player Steve Gleason, who lives with the progressive neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Gleason tasked the hackers with developing a solution for others living with the disease.
Five years later, that project has come to market in the form of the Independence Drive, a system that lets users move their wheelchair by looking at one of eight points on a tablet, which tracks eye movement through a camera. For safety reasons, the chair stops when users look away.
“There are still no treatments for ALS, but because of technology, people like me are able to remain productive and purposeful for years, even decades,” Gleason said in a statement. “Unfortunately, when I was diagnosed, the available technology was severely lacking and incredibly expensive.”
Gleason is set to receive the Congressional Gold Medal this year, making him the first person with ALS to receive the U.S.’s highest civilian honor.
Former Saints football player @TeamGleason just launched a wheelchair system that can be controlled by eye movement. Here he is using the system at Mardi Gras in March. Full story on @GeekWire https://t.co/2n2IWhHFNu pic.twitter.com/3FL8snoy60
— James Thorne (@jamescthorne) April 11, 2019
Team Gleason, which provides technology, equipment and services for people living with ALS, developed the system in partnership with Seattle-based tech startup Evergreen Circuits and Livid Instruments founder Jay Smith, who is also living with ALS. Wheelchair and medical supply provider Numotion will distribute the Independence Drive at its 150 national locations. Independence Drive will sell for $5,000.
Gleason has long fought for assistive technology. He inspired the Answer ALS project, which aims to use big data to understand and develop treatments for the disease. Microsoft last year backed Answer ALS with $1 million in cloud computing and technical services.
The Microsoft hackathon also led to the addition of an eye-tracking feature in Windows, which allows users to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard and text-to-speech with their eyes.
“Independence Drive is one of the most exciting innovations we’ve seen in our industry in quite some time,” Numotion CEO Mike Swinford said in the statement. “People fighting neuromuscular diseases have needed a breakthrough like this for quite some time. They deserve better solutions and we are incredibly honored to help bring this technology to market.”
Numotion said Independence Drive can also help patients with limited mobility resulting from spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy, among other conditions. The system will be available at Numotion locations nationally late next month.
Gleason, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., was a safety for the New Orleans Saints who became famous for a blocked punt in the team’s first home game at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The block was later memorialized in a statue outside the stadium.