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Science Changes Lives: The musician who composes in the blink of an eye

Cillian McSweeney has cerebral palsy but uses Eyegaze technology to give him a voice through songwriting.

THIS IS THE first in a series of articles which explore the impact that science and research is having on real people’s lives in Ireland.

From a pacemaker which keeps an athlete’s heart beating to an activist who has gone from being born deaf to being able to talk on the phone for the first time, we focus on five individuals for whom innovative technology is having a profound effect.

The series is inspired by the story of adventurer Mark Pollock’s bid to walk again through cutting-edge research and tech advances. His journey will be revealed in the feature documentary, Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Film, due for release in Ireland this October.

As part of the release the film will be touring the country promoting science in association with the Science Foundation Ireland.

First up: Cillian McSweeney whose eyes have, in a very real way, become the windows on his soul.

Everyone’s the same… everyone’s equal

Independent-minded musician Cillian McSweeney began writing songs four years ago. He performed his song, Equal, at Mary McAleese’s Family Garden Party just a year after writing his first lyrics. “To top it all,” he got to share a stage with the Coronas to perform for the President.

McSweeney describes songwriting as his “escape”. The 24 year old has cerebral palsy which makes him completely dependent on others. He is wheelchair bound and unable to speak. He is now overcoming these physical limitations by using technology to write words and play music.

“My close family could always communicate with me using gestures and a process of elimination but it was very frustrating,” he says.

The determined songwriter uses Eyegaze technology which tracks the movement of his eyes.

It enables him to communicate and write song lyrics. He was very excited the first time he used the equipment as it gave him the opportunity “to be independent, have a voice and a say” in what he wanted. He had “been looking for something like this for years.”

How Eyegaze technology works

This assistive technology works using a specialised video camera mounted below a specific screen. Specially developed software analyses the images produced by the camera 60 times each second and determines where McSweeney or another user is looking. The specific place on the screen is then selected which enables him to type or use other computer programmes.

Eye-tracking technology is also used for research on the movement of the eyes. In the UCD School of Psychology, scientists are using eye tracking technology to help differentiate between expert sportspeople and beginners in sports such as golf and tennis.

They found that tennis beginners often look at the ball but experts look at spaces on the court as they are anticipating their opponent’s next move.

Eyegaze not only lets McSweeney write music but also listen to it. “When I was a young teenager I used to love listening to music, but I depended on others to select and find what I wanted. Now I have the freedom to play and listen to what I want.”

He got involved in SoundOut, an inclusive music technology school in Cork, where he learnt to play music using a soundbeam. This device uses sensor technology to translate body movement into music and sound.

This video shows Cillian’s debut performance of Equal in 2011:

Source: cillian mc sweeney/YouTube

A studio-quality version of the song is here – featuring lyrics written by McSweeney:

Look into your heart, change the way you see me. Don’t judge me from the start. Try to get to know me.

Cerebral palsy can occur when the part of the brain that controls movement is damaged while the brain is growing. Assistive technology enhances the lives of many people with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities. Eyegaze is one of the many options for people with movement or speech difficulties. A variety of apps can also be used to improve communication. Using an iPad app, McSweeney can play a virtual piano with his Eyegaze.

“I realised that by using Eyegaze, I could put feelings into words,” explains McSweeney. “Technology is vital to me. I had always been looking for a way that I could be accepted in the real world.” He feels that using technology to write and perform music will help others with disabilities. “I want to be an inspiration!”

McSweeney is currently completing a community employment scheme with the charity Enable Ireland and he hopes to begin a music course this September.

“Got a lot more to give so get on with the game!”

Blind, paralysed… and bald: But Mark Pollock’s TEDx talk is about possibilities, not problems>

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About the author:

Maria Delaney

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