Engineering project opens eyes to patient communication

Thanks to a group of Western students, a significant healthcare deficiency could soon be solved – all with a blink of an eye.

I-COM (Intuitive Communication via Ocular Motion) is the brainchild of third-year Mechatronic Systems Engineering students Anish Naidu, Adam Newsome, Jochem van Gaalen and Wesley Johnson. The system allows intubated patients in hospitals to communicate with doctors more efficiently, using only their eyes.

The project won first place and a $5,000 cash prize in the Innovative Design category of the 2013 Canadian Engineering Competition, held earlier this month at Carleton University.

I-COM uses electrooculography, tracking the motion of a patient’s eyes by way of a specialized headband. The headband contains electrodes to detect voltage fluctuations caused by eye movement.

“We translate those motions to a computer screen, which contains a bunch of options of what they want to say. All they have to do is look in the direction of the option they want to say, and it displays the option for the doctor,” Newsome said.

It’s text messaging with one’s eyes, the students said.

As it stands, intubated patients, individuals who are often sedated and unable to communicate even by gestures, interact with health-care providers by blinking when a nurse brings in a board and points to a phrase they wish to say, or individual letters, until a desired phrase is spelled out.

“The current method in hospitals is inefficient and time consuming and can lead to errors with communication between patients and doctors,” van Gaalen said.

Patients can misinterpret where the nurse is pointing, for instance, thus leading to undesired care and even improper diagnoses of medical conditions. The current method can be taxing for patients.

I-COM is much more efficient as it requires no skill to use and no time to master. And it addresses a number of other issues, as well.

“With our method, the patient can actually correct what they want to say. And this is a lot faster; it doesn’t require much nurse time and can help provide more complete diagnoses with patients,” van Gaalen said.

At the competition, van Gaalen demonstrated I-COM to the judges by wearing the headband, advancing slides and communicating with the audience by blinking.

“The innovative part was to make it simple so people don’t have to take time practicing to learn how to use it. There are many paraplegic patients, and even Stephen Hawking, who use technologies like these, but they have better equipment, more expensive equipment they use for extended periods of time,” Naidu said.

I-COM is inexpensive, however, with a disposable headband for each patient costing $16 while a reusable fixed circuit board system that translates the messages sent by the headband would cost the hospital some $160.

“We made it inexpensive for the hospital. We can justify the cost by the time saved by nurses for communication,” Naidu continued, adding the device has potential for other markets also.

“It has many other applications as well. We designed it specifically for this (healthcare) field by making it disposable and inexpensive. The technology can be used in other fields like research and gaming. We can modify it so it’s not disposable and can be used for extended periods of time.”

The students’ I-COM design also took home the Canadian Engineering Competition’s Sandford Fleming Foundation Petri Design Award, a $2,500 cash price and the most prestigious award at the competition. The group plans to spend the summer working to further this project and get a patent for the design.

Established by the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students, the Canadian Engineering Competition brings together 150 engineering students from across the country who must advance from their institution’s competition and then their regional competition, before competing at the national level. Students are challenged to come up with innovative solutions facing their professions.

The 2014 Canadian Engineering Competition will take place at Western.