38-year-old computer programmer Gal Sont is developing revolutionary new software to aid disabled people in communication, even as he faces paralysis himself.
Sont suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – alternately known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’), which he was first diagnosed with in 2009.
Due to this disease, the neurons that govern voluntary movement (located in the brain and spinal cord) are slowly dying out, which means that Gal is likely to eventually suffer from ‘locked-in syndrome’, a cruel affliction wherein the mind is aware and conscious, but the body is completely unable to move or speak (usually only the eyes are voluntarily controlled).
Tragically, there is no known cure for this condition.
When Sont (who, even today, can only stand when aided – and only for a few seconds at a time) met other people suffering with similar disabilities, he found that they were increasingly resorting to expensive (and often-inefficient) computer setups in order to help them better communicate with the outside world.
“I came to realize that these people first of all don’t understand the potential, what technology can do for them, they use all kinds of different equipment which was very expensive, and as I know technology I didn’t understand why they were so expensive”, Sont told BBC News earlier this week.
“So I decided to build the best and fastest on-screen keyboard, then when combined with the camera, it gives you a very cheap and very good communication solution… accessible for all people, not only the rich.”
Sont and his best friend Dan Russ are business partners in the Las Vegas, Nevada, USA-based start-up company Click2Speak, which aims to create a fast, efficient and accurate on-screen keyboard (created by Sont –using only his eyes) in order to aid people with physical disabilities. The driving force behind the invention is to create an affordable product that is better than anything else available right now.
Click2Speak makes use of an ingenious eye-tracking camera that allows the user to control the cursor on a screen, or click buttons on a virtual keyboard, simply by looking at them. Clicks can be made using a foot pedal, or by holding one’s gaze on a specific part of the screen. Gal’s computer makes full use of his Click2Speak software and he is able to control his entire desktop (including email, Skype, video games and, perhaps most importantly, the creation of code – the way in which he makes his living) using only his eyes.
Click2Speak is fully integrated with the SwiftKey Smartphone app, which is timesaving software that creates complete suggestions for half-typed words, based on the user’s previous word use. Essentially, the software grows easier to use the more it is utilized and this is a major part of Click2Speak’s design.
As his illness progresses, Sont will be using his own software more and more to communicate with his family, friends and business colleagues.
Gal Sont was born in Israel in 1976 and was fascinated by computers since getting his first Commodore 64 aged 8. He married his school sweetheart, with whom he has two daughters and has subsequently spent 20 years working as a computer programmer. He is also a big sci-fi/fantasy fan and he used to enjoy outdoor activities such as kite surfing, motor biking and riding roller coasters.
By nature a proud man, Gal cherishes his independence and it is this desire to remain self-sufficient that has motivated him to create such an affordable software option for others facing similar hardships.
“I never asked for help from anyone my whole life, it was my wife and I against the world, but now I need help and assistance, and it’s not too much fun to ask all the time for others to help you (…) If you can buy a communication device by yourself without begging others to help, this is also very, very good. So I hope the people out there who hear about our software and the keyboard, will be able to use it, save money and time, and live their life.” He says.
It is clear that Sont’s miraculous mind will prove to be a life preserver, not only for himself, but also for thousands of others around the world.
“Your communication is the basis of everything, to tell someone you love them, to ask for something to drink, it is the basic need of every one of us: to communicate with my family and friends and tell them all that I need, in words. So communicating is very important, and if I can do it faster and more efficient, you know, I’ve won the world.”