On September 10, Julius Sweetland, 32, released a two-minute video demo of his new eye-tracking program OptiKey. Although the demo marked the culmination of almost four years of solitary effort, coding late into the night and squeezing in some morning programming before heading to his day job, it reached a global audience in just a few hours.
OptiKey is a program that enables individuals with motor neuron diseases like ALS to type, click, and browse their computers using only the movements of their eyes. Although it requires a PC and an eye-tracking camera to work, the software itself is free to use—undercutting commercial systems by thousands of dollars.
Although Sweetland holds a computer science degree from the University of Bristol, he emphasizes that his professional background is largely unrelated to his work around OptiKey.
“[My day job has] nothing to do with eye-tracking stuff,” he explains. “I’ve been writing financial software. I started at a hedge fund.”
But a little over four years ago, a loss in his family suddenly confronted Sweetland with the critical call for speech aids for those diagnosed with degenerative illnesses.
“My Aunt [Gill] died of Motor Neuron Disease [MND],” he says. “It was quite fast … and [it] took away her faculties and her ability to use her body and communicate.”