SMARTlab short-listed for THE Awards 2008

The Times Higher Education (THE) has announced its shortlist for THE Awards 2008 and SMARTlab has been short-listed for the ‘Outstanding Support for Students with Disabilities’ category.

Principal Investigator Dr. Mick Donegan, Co-PI Professor Lizbeth Goodman and the research team James Brosnan, Dr Brian Duffy, Sapna Ramnani, Jeremi Sudol, Aejaz Zahid et al have all been recognized for their outstanding work on InterFACES – Setting free creative expression for students with the most complex disabilities.

SMARTlab exists to improve services, support structures and tools for lifelong learners and non-standard students, including people with disabilities.

The InterFACES research project is one of our core activities, aimed at creating tools that can empower free expression by students and scholars of even the most limited physical mobility.

The SMARTlab research team has made remarkable progress in the area of Assistive Technology, where InterFACES exists as an outstanding model for customizing learning tools. The project uses eye movement as a control mechanism for communication by people with little or no other voluntary muscle movement, and for whom controlling the computer is otherwise slow, tiring and often painful. Gaze-controlled technology offers quicker, easier and more effective opportunities for communication, learning and self-expression through music, art and design.

The project responds to the individual needs and abilities of each student. PhD student Sapna Ramnani, who directs her own films, has severe involuntary movement due to cerebral palsy. Without eye control she has to rely on others to control complex film editing software, which is extremely frustrating and severely limits her independent creative expression. She is desperate to have the opportunity to edit her own films herself, and therefore SMARTlab is working on an interface to enable her to do this. Once completed, individuals worldwide will have the opportunity to use the interface, and the number of people who will potentially benefit from this is huge: for instance, almost a million people have cerebral palsy in Europe alone.

James, aged 32, is a SMARTlab research associate and prospective Ph.D. student who also has severe cerebral palsy. For five years he has been working with us to improve the Mytobii interface before he will be fully empowered to undertake the PhD independently. Over time James’ disability has increasingly restricted his range of movement, and using ‘chin-switches’ is increasingly painful, slow and difficult for him, and is harmful to his overall state of health. Through InterFACES James is now able to write easily and comfortably using his eyes, and he is co-authoring a book with Professor Goodman for the MIT Press about assistive technologies and the need to make these accessible to students worldwide, at reasonable cost. He has also successfully found other outlets for his creative expression, for example performing in “A Duet for Eyes” in April this year: a sell-out event marking the first time ever that two disabled people with complex disabilities have given a musical performance using eye control technology. The show was repeated in extended form as an invited event at the ALT2008 Conference in Leeds this September, in association with the AHRC Sprites project and Professor Goodman’s invited lecture with the BBC, when one of our team was able to use the system to speak and sing for herself, for the first time in her life.

SMARTlab was awarded the UEL Promising Research Award of £14,000 to develop InterFACES. Other sources of finance have included the Science Gallery, Dublin, independent charitable donations and voluntary donations from the team involved. The project was co-directed by Dr Mick Donegan and Professor Goodman, inspired and kept alive by James Brosnan and our many students and colleagues with disabilities, and with additional support from a team of professors and associate researchers who have volunteered much of their time to make accessible study and communication possible for all.

Support Material:

To see film footage and demonstrations of InterFACES please go to:

To see pictures of the A Duet for Eyes performance please go to:

For more information on interfaces please go to here.

To see Sapna Ramani’s work please go to:

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