Technology helps disabled student play harp with her eyes

By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS, (Reuters) – Alexandra Kerlidou sits in her wheelchair on stage in Athens. With only the movement of her eyes over a computer screen, the 21-year-old fills the air with harp music.

Student with cerebral palsy, who cannot use her hands or speak, plays “Eyeharp”, a digital gaze-controlled software that allows people with disabilities to play music, which she never thought possible possible.

“I felt weird, I had never imagined such a thing,” said Alexandra, using a speech-generating computer program, describing trying the “Eyeharp” for the first time at her home in Lesbos with the creator Zacharias Vamvakousis.

Computer scientist and musician, Vamvakousis was inspired to create the program after a musician friend was injured in a motorcycle accident shortly before they played a concert together.

“At first it was not clear if he would be able to move his arms, hands and play music again,” Vamvakousis said of his friend, who played the Cretan lyre. “It was a shock to me and I realized there was a need for this kind of technology.”

Digital eye tracking technology, widely used in gaming, security, and medicine, monitors eye movements to execute commands. The eye rests on every musical note spaced on a wheel on the screen and can play an average of three to four notes per second. The program can “play” 25 musical instruments.

“Without doing it digitally, it would never be possible to play music in real time,” said Vamvakousis. “It takes away the real action of strumming a chord.”

The program requires discipline and focus, he says, as you need to keep the eyes from wandering too quickly to the next grade, but students are elated when they hear their efforts.

“Most kids start with the sound of the drum first just to make noise, just to interact with the environment right now,” Vamvakousis said.

He taught the program at specialist schools in Barcelona, ​​where he studied, and says more than 2,000 people have downloaded the program.

Due to the pandemic, he currently teaches online, primarily to children with cerebral palsy, but the program is also designed for people with muscular dystrophy, limb amputation, quadriplegia, or spinal cord injuries. spinal.

“I cried, so did her mother,” said Kerlidou’s father Anastasios after his daughter first played Eyeharp.

Alexandra, who wants to work in computer programming after finishing her studies, enjoys Greek folk songs and the piano. She couldn’t imagine life without music.

“When I’m sad or happy, I put on some music,” she says.

(Reporting and writing by Deborah Kyvrikosaios, editing by James Mackenzie and Giles Elgood)

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