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Zach Lieberman spoke at the Graphic Design Festival Breda about one of his initiatives, the EyeWriter, a low-cost, open source eye-tracking system that enables artists with paralysis to draw using only their eyes. 

By Jeanne Tan /asdf 20-05-2010

EyeWriter was created for legendary LA graffiti writer, publisher and activist, named Tony Quan, aka TEMPTONE. Since 2003, Tony has been diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which has left him almost physically paralyzed, except for his eyes. 

EyeWriter combines an eye-tracking device - here, a hacked PS3 Eye - with custom software (for eye tracking and drawing with eye movements) fitted onto a pair of funky low-cost glasses. Eyetags drawn by Tony in Los Angeles are uploaded directly from his device onto an online database. His artworks can then be downloaded to be projected onto a surface in any part of the world.

Working together with Members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, the Graffiti Research Lab, and The Ebeling Group, Zach Lieberman is helping develop this unique project that aims to 'create a professional/social network of software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open source research to creatively connect and make eye art.' spoke with New York-based Zach Lieberman, who was a keynote speaker at this year's Graphic Design Festival Breda (GDFB), about this inspiring project.

How did you enjoy the Graphic Design Festival Breda?
I loved it - I had a really great, warm time. Since the openFrameworks lab (where we looked at the intersection of code and graphic design) was held before the festival opened, I only got to see a bit of the opening but it seems like a great festival and everyone on the staff was superb to work with.

Was it your first time in The Netherlands?
No I've been here before - I participated in Cinekid festival in Amsterdam and DEAF (Dutch Electronic Arts Festival) in Rotterdam. In addition, when I was an art student, studying printmaking and painting I lived for six months in Groningen. Each time I've been to Netherlands, I've made great friends and connections. The openFrameworks community in Netherlands is especially strong, because of the great work of folks like openToko  and it's great to be working here.

You spoke about EyeWriter at the opening lecture of the Graphic Design Festival Breda right? How was the feedback from the audience about your lecture and the project?
Oh it was great. I think it's a very nice project to show to designers and people interested in visual communication. Everyone can relate to Tony - an artist who lost his ability to make his art. Several people told me they were really moved in the talk.

So how did the project first begin, how did you get in contact with Tony?
There was a company, The Ebeling Group, which is based out in LA, and they met Tony through a fundraiser about three years ago. After meeting members of our team Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) at a conference, they thought there could be a great connection between the two of us. We got started about a year ago when we went out to LA and got to know Tony, his family and caregivers.

How long did the process take to develop this?
We were out for a week in March 2009 which didn't conclude with a working prototype, but where we learned quite a ton. We went back for a week in August, and the results at the end were much better. Since August we've been working on and off on the development. The last semester (from about January 2010 on) I've been teaching a class at Parsons School of Design (New York) where we are looking at the EyeWriter, its hardware and software design and working on version 2.0, which should launch soon.

What were some of the challenges of developing the EyeWriter?
Eye tracking is hard, and doing it with super low cost materials is also pretty hard. One challenge with eye tracking is that you are using an organ that's dedicated to input for output, and the feedback loops in your brain when you do that are pretty intense. Looking to control vs looking to absorb, etc. It's very intimate to watch someone use an eyetracker, because you can see their thinking and thought process.

And some of the rewards?
It's amazing to be involved with such a great, creative team. Tony is really inspiring to us too, and it's great to be collaborating with him.

How's Tony enjoying it?
He's super into it. Can you imagine drawing again after not drawing for years?

Where have you taken EyeWriter and where does EyeWriter go from here?
Worldwide - we've presented Tony's drawings in Kyoto, Tokyo, Vienna, Oslo,  New York, London, Manchester and in talks just about everywhere.  We've won some prizes too, Design of the Year (interactive), the FutureEverything prize, Golden Nica at Ars Electronica - all of that's exciting and gives the project a lot of energy.

The next big thing for us is a massive kickstarter campaign to sell some of Tony's artwork in tshirt and poster form, which should drop in June. I encourage folks who are interested in supporting the project to follow @eyewriter on twitter.

Finally, we're very close to a version 2.0 of the hardware and software. It should be a good improvement on the first system, and we're very much looking forward to putting it out there and getting feedback.

Why did you decide to make EyeWriter an open source resource?
Open source is about treating artistic practice as research. How do you publish the things you learn as you are making art? Open source is one good, super solution. You put it out there, and it's used in kinds of crazy ways, which is something very beautiful and profound. We're not in the game to make money, we are doing it for the heart and when ideas spread, that's the reward.

The core development team of EyeWriter consists of members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks and the Graffiti Resarch Lab: Tony Quan, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Zach Lieberman,Theo Watson and James Powderly.

With founding support from The Ebeling Group and the Not Impossible Foundation, and addition support from Parsons Communication Design & Technology.

Watch the video below!

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