This summer, Microsoft hosted a company wide hackathon called //oneweek. This wasn't the first hackathon here at Microsoft -- I had already participated in three over the past few years just myself -- but it was definately the biggest and most visible. Everyone in the company was invited to take the week and participate. People started planning potential projects a few months in advance.
As part of this preparation, Steve Gleason was invited to come to the hackathon. Steve has ALS which is a disease that causes nerve cells to gradually break down and die affecting the ability to control the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. He's been inspiring us in how he uses technology to overcome ALS for years. Steve says "until there is a medical treatment or cure, technology can be a cure". He came to the hackathon to directly push technology forward. You can read a transcript of his challenge on the Team Gleason news page.
The team hacked together a quick solution for driving a wheelchair using a Surface 3, a Tobii PC Eye Go eye gaze tracking device, an Arduino, and a Permobil wheelchair. They disassembled the joystick of the wheelchair, reverse engineered its electrical signals, and use an Arduino to replace the joystick with electronic control from the Surface. They then wrote an eye gaze application on the Surface with a simple 'four arrows' interface to drive the wheelchair forward/backward/right/left.
Since driving a 300 pound wheelchair around with hacked prototypes can be hazardous, the team hooked up a less intimidating robot proxy to test, which Steve and Rivers decided to play a little impromtu Joust with.
In the end, the team won!
After the contest was over it was time to decide where to go from here. Fortunately, with both the support to Satya Nadella and Peter Lee (VP of Microsoft Research), the project found a home. I'm happy to say I'm part of that home and the project moving forward.