1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Eyedrivomatic

Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 

Amyotrophic laterals sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Typically, motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. However, with ALS, the progressive degeneration of the motor neurons leads to their demise. When these motor neurons die, the brain’s ability to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people eventually become unable to speak, eat, move and breathe.

Cognizant of this, the Maker trio of Patrick Joyce, Steve Evans and David Hopkinson have developed an eye-controlled wheelchair system that will enable those who no longer have use of hands to regain their mobility, not only ALS sufferers. This innovation, dubbed Eyedrivomatic, is a yet another prime example that a Hackaday Prize entry can make a lasting impact on the lives of others. We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with team member Patrick Joyce to get this thoughts on the contest, learn about his inspiration for the project and what the future holds for the truly remarkable machine that will give those with quadriplegia a second lease on life.


Atmel: What is Eyedrivomatic?

Patrick Joyce: Eyedrivomatic is an eye-controlled wheelchair system that allows quadriplegics to take control of their mobility, by providing a hardware ‘bridge’ between users’ Eyegaze equipment and their wheelchairs.

Atmel: How did you come to the idea for it? Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

PJ: I have ALS, a terminal disease which takes away use of your muscles, your ability to eat and breathe, and sooner or later, inevitably, takes your life as well. Two years ago, as I was steadily losing the use of my hands, I suddenly realized to my horror that when they did go completely, I would no longer be able to move my own wheelchair. Subsequently, I would have to rely on carers to move me. I figured I’d better do something about that.

When I heard about the Hackaday Prize, I thought ‘wow, a trip into space!’ What I didn’t realize was just how motivating entering would be, and how dramatically the deadlines would speed up the rate of progress on the project — it’s been a heck of a ride.


Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize’s theme, how are you hoping your device changes the world? What’s the mission?

PJ: My original goal of helping my future self retain independent mobility soon changed, when I realized the scale of the problem. My mission quickly became helping everyone in this awful position, worldwide. At the moment, Eyedrivomatic is a first-world solution to a first-world problem. It relies on the user having Eyegaze equipment and an electric wheelchair. I can’t do much about quadriplegics without wheelchairs, but I’m actively working on a webcam-based system for those without Eyegaze equipment.

Atmel: What’s different about it? What’s your vision for the next five years? Where do you see the project going or what/who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

Truth be told, ALS will likely take my life sometime over the next couple of years, so getting the Eyedrivomatic project to the point where others can continue its maintenance and development is paramount. I’m nearly there — just some work left to do on the software. From there, the priority will become getting the system out to the people who need it.


Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has opened the door for everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardcare engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

PJ: These processes are hindered by my inexperience in all the disciplines necessary for a project like this. Before getting ALS, I was an artist… a painter. My work never paid the rent, so I earned a living as a tree surgeon, or even more recently, a plumber. None of which was much use when it came to 3D design and programming. However, Arduino is a perfect platform for someone such as myself. Powerful and versatile, yet simple and easy to use. And, Arduino combined with 3D printing — now that’s marriage made in heaven. I certainly couldn’t have designed Eyedrivomatic without them.

Atmel: What are some of the core pieces of hardware embedded?

PJ: Eyedrivomatic employs an Arduino Uno (ATmega328), which has enough processing power to run the entire system with plenty to spare for add-on features. Aside from that, there’s a four-channel relay shield, a servo/sensor shield, an optional solar phone charger, some servos and a few other components that can be found on its Hackaday page here.]


Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

PJ: My advice to those wanting to become Makers, but daunted by their lack of skills: Arduino, Arduino, Arduino! It’s perfect for beginners, and provides you with programming instruction as you go along – at your own pace. Then, get hold of a 3D printer and learn Sketchup or Autodesk 123D.

Atmel: Has this process inspired you to launch a startup and perhaps even take to Kickstarter/Indiegogo?

PJ: I’ve no plans to crowdfund an Eyedrivomatic manufacturing project at the present time, though I’m hoping someone else will.

Atmel: And… if you win, will you be heading to space or taking the cash?!

PJ: I would love to go into space! But Eyedrivomatic was a team effort, and sadly we can’t all squeeze in that one seat. So boringly, we would take the cash.

Don’t miss our other interviews with fellow HaD Prize finalists Chris LowOpenBionics and Eric William!

6 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Eyedrivomatic

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