Technology- Federal Research Benefits the Private Sector

Circa 2003

Joe Martin has authored two books and edited a third. He wrote silly songs for his daughter’s wedding and plays games with his grandchildren. Nothing unusual until you consider that Martin was diagnosed in 1994 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is paralyzed.

Martin’s profound intellect remains intact. He functions by using an assistive technology device originally developed to allow pilots to accomplish complex tasks when their hands are not free. The benefits of this specialized technology extend to others with mobility issues, thanks to technology transfer between the federal laboratories and private industry.

The Eyegaze Communication System helps Martin enjoy what he terms a “remarkably normal life.” The technology, which originated from Department of Defense research and is manufactured by LC Technologies in Fairfax, VA., enhances the quality of life for people with disabilities all over the world. It allows children and adults with severe cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, paralysis and ALS the ability to communicate, to be employed and to generally thrive.

Martin is not alone. Each year thousands of people around the world are confronted with some form of dis ability. Their goal is to find a means of leading as normal a life as possible and to be productive. Many technologies are a by-product of federally-funded research which is then transferred to the private sector, as is the case with the Eyegaze Communication System.

“If not for legislation that allows for such public-private partnerships, world-class research from the federal laboratories would remain on the shelves.” says National Technology Transfer Center (NTTC) President Joseph P. Allen. A 20 year veteran of national efforts to put federally developed, cutting-edge technology in the hands of

U.S. industry, Allen explains, “The economy and the American public, in this case people with disabilities, are reaping the benefits.”

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The Eyegaze Communication System is a hands-off. unobtrusive, remote human-computer interface that can be used to track a user’s gaze point and allows interaction with his or her environment using only the eyes. Simply put, the sophisticated device tracks eye movements on a computer screen. The user focuses his or her eyes on the letters of a keyboard. If there is a pause on a letter or a command for a fraction of a second, the computer types the letter or takes that action.

“It is a video camera, a PC and software, a complete system that provides total communication ability for people with severe disabilities who can see and have retained their cognitive skills,” says Joe Lahoud, president of LC Technologies. “With this technology, there is nothing the user cannot accomplish.”

Joe Martin continues to be an author. After the disease began to take hold of his nerves and muscles, Martin completed Fire in the Rock. He then collaborated with author Ross Yockey on On Any Given Day, a book about learning to cope with ALS. He was recently invited to present an award to author John Grisham.

“After I could no longer talk, the Eyegaze Communication System enabled me to do my job at the bank until I retired in 2001,” Martin says. “I continue to write, make speeches and stay involved in the community. On November 10, we set up the system on stage so I could introduce John Grisham to an audience of 2,000 people. Under stage lights, the Eyegaze performed like a Stradivarius.”

While the Eyegaze Communication System has been available for more than a decade, its considerable size and weight originally inhibited wider use. As a result, Congress funded NASA in 1998 to help advance the technology. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) collaborated with LC Technologies to improve several areas that have commercial potential.

Another commercially available assistive device with roots in the federal laboratory system is the JORDYTM (Joint Optical Reflective Display), designed and manufactured by Enhanced Vision, a privately held medical device company located in Huntington Beach, CA. JORDY enables people with low vision conditions like macular degeneration to read, write, work, watch television and enjoy plays, movies and sporting events. There are more than 12.5 million people throughout the United States who have low vision.

JORDY was inspired by the Low-Vision Enhancement System (LVES), a digital video headset developed through joint research by NASA Stennis Space Center, Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The LVES also enabled people who have low vision to read and write with ease.

While LVES was licensed and marketed by Visionics and commercially available for just a short time, significant advances in technology led to Enhanced Vision’s JORDY. Paul Mogan, an engineer at NASA Kennedy Space Center, continues to assist in the development of JORDY by contributing ideas and evaluating proto types.

But there is more to Mogan than meets the eye. He has been legally blind since the age of 18 due to macular degeneration, and has been using JORDY since 1999.

“You develop a set of tools to perform your functions in life, at work and at home,” Mogan says. “From what I have seen, there is no other device that does exactly what JORDY does.”

Mogan says his reading vision is 20/20 when using JORDY. He uses the device to fill out forms, read books and peruse restaurant menus. JORDY assists people throughout the world to regain visual independence. One particularly dynamic group who have taken up using JORDY are high school and college students who need to stay active and involved within a school setting.

“I use JORDY all day at school for reading the black board and textbooks. I’m in advanced placement classes at school, and would not be able to keep up with my workload without JORDY,” says high school student Doug Weber, who has used the JORDY since age 11.

Cable-compliant joints developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are the key element of Enduro Medical Technology’s Secure Ambulation Module (SAM), another technology that is benefiting people with disabilities.

In June 2002, Kenneth Messier, president of Enduro Medical Technology in East Hartford, CT, licensed NASA’s cable-compliant technology and walker for medical purposes. Today SAM is commercially available to improve physical therapy for patients working to regain the ability to walk after traumatic injuries or degenerative diseases.

Introduced to the medical community in March 2003 with positive reviews, Messier says SAM is a wheeled walker with a unique harness that supports the patient’s body weight and controls the pelvis without restricting hip movement. It is currently being marketed for institutional use. Future plans, Messier says, are to market the device for home and pediatric use, for example with people with arthritis and cerebral palsy.

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SAM contains several features to make it user friendly. The height and weight adjustability accommodates patients weighing up to 500 pounds and ranging from four foot, six-inches to six foot, four-inches tall. The pelvic harness comes in various sizes and is padded with NASA developed Tempur foam for comfort.

While the benefits for assistive technology companies and federal agencies to work together are evident, many companies are not aware of resources such as the NTTC. In fact, the NTTC, with federal clients such as NASA and the VA, actively markets technologies in an effort to facilitate partnerships.

“The NTTC was established by U.S. Congress in 1989 to be a clearinghouse for federally funded research. Today we work closely with our clients to assess the commercial potential of technologies, market them and engage the private sector to bring the technologies to market,” says Allen. He recently co-authored a new book, Technology Transfer for Entrepreneurs, a guide for entrepreneurs interested in commercializing federal laboratory innovations.

The Department of Commerce unveiled a new initiative in July to advance the U.S. assistive technology industry and meet the needs for disabled Americans. At Technology for All Americans, an event commemorating the 13th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Under Secretary Phil Bond announced an eight-point plan to support the development of assistive technologies.

“We look forward to working with industry and other federal agencies to implement this initiative. It will improve assistive technology manufacturing efficiency, enhance technology transfer opportunities and expedite commercialization,” Bond says.

One of the eight points was to encourage technology transfer between public and private organizations by cataloguing and raising awareness of sources of technical assistance, product ideas and patented inventions. The NTTC was specifically mentioned as a good technical resource in the development of new assistive technology devices and services.

Technology for All Americans featured thirty-one exhibits addressing vision, hearing, mobility, learning and other types of disabilities.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center is seeking to license a patented robotic hand that is small, rugged and dexterous enough to simulate the function of a human hand. NASA is also looking for industrial partners for Johnson’s Control System for Prosthetic Devices, a myoelectric prosthesis-control system for below-the-elbow amputees. The VA is seeking a commercial partner for its computer-controlled Power Wheelchair Navigation System, which is aimed at a segment of the population unable to manually guide the movements of powered wheelchairs. Additionally, the VA’s design of an Oblique-angle Suspension Caster Fork (OASCF) for manual wheelchairs provides com fort for the manual wheelchair user and durability for the chair by absorbing impacts efficiently.

“With major clients such as NASA and the VA, organizations doing world-class research, the NTTC is in a unique position to help improve lives and make an impact in this critical area,” Allen says. “These technologies can truly help people with disabilities.”

by Robert Reid & Steven Infanti

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