Music at the blink of an eye


An imaginative use of technology has allowed James Brosnan to use his laptop to jam with musicians – despite having cerebral palsy and being in a wheelchair, writes SIOBHÁN LONG

‘LIFE IS A PARADOX – the opposites between life and death, ability and disability, and technology and solitude.” James Brosnan, journalist, activist and music fanatic muses about the pros and cons of finding himself immersed in technology. Having cerebral palsy, being a wheelchair user and being unable to speak have done little to halt his gallop through the world of assistive technology: everything from communication devices to countless computers and the odd power wheelchair.

A graduate of DCU with a first class honours degree in communications, Brosnan recently performed in Trinity College’s Science Gallery’s Lightwave ’09: Defy The Darkness festival. Having worked on a range of projects over the past six years with SmartLab, a coalition of academics based at the University of East London, Brosnan jumped at the chance to explore his own musical creativity by using solely his eye movements to jam with a gaggle of musicians, in a performance entitled Eyelight – Live Music and Dance Controlled by Infrared Eye Gaze Cameras and Driven by the Human Spirit.

James controls the computer, called My Tobii, using his eyes, and jams using a software programme called Grid 2, designed by UK company, Sensory Software. A sensor follows his eye-movement, via which he picks out pre-recorded sequences of music. “I don’t see myself as an artist per se, but I like to dabble in things and move things forward,” James says, of his groundbreaking experimental work with Dr Lizbeth Goodman, SmartLab’s founder, Dr Mick Donegan, and Kíla’s Colm Ó Snodaigh, and Dee Armstrong. Robbie Perry of Dead Can Dance lent home brew percussion too (a double bass), and Juliet Turner (in her capacity as a speech and language therapy student) hovered in the background, supporting Jameswith his communication device.

“I have always had a flair to show off,” James says, with characteristic modesty. “I have said in the past that I just use technology to express myself. Whether it’s beyond that stage now, I don’t know. About the rock and roll end of it, I went to Mount Temple School, where U2 and Christopher Nolan went. I guess whatever I do evolves from a blend of Bono’s rattle and hum and the late Christy’s verbose tongue. Jamming live in front of an audience, there’s an element of being Jimi Hendrix that comes out in the adrenalin.”

Using his eyes to create music in the midst of this co-op of scientists and musicians is a natural extension of Brosnan’s earlier experiences, all of which have been mediated by his use of a range of assistive technologies. He talks via synthethic speech, activated by a switch under his chin connectred to his laptop.

“I have worked as newsletter journalist and editor in the voluntary sector, but my CE scheme expired after six years,” he offers, recounting the picaresque journey that’s brought him to this crossroads where art and technology collide. “MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has contracted me to compile a research book through Dr Goodman and SmartLab. The theme of the book is on assistive technology and general policy. The thing is, there is nowhere to go for the user if their device breaks down. “It takes up to 10 weeks for people to get back their system in these situations. I’d like to create somewhere online for the users to develop advocacy among other users, and somewhere for manufacturers and service providers to exchange ideas with each other and with assistive technology users.”

COLM Ó SNODAIGH revels in the chance to explore new musical ground with Brosnan and Katy Gilligan, who’s also exploring the possibilities of eye gaze technologies to enable her to communicate and to express herself musically. Ó Snodaigh’s own background, as a physiotherapist informed his interest in this collaboration, along with his appetite for musical exploration with Kíla.

“I have a natural empathy for people who are excluded from society,” he says, “because we as able-bodied people simply haven’t made the effort to include them. The basic thing with the body is that the eyes almost always work, regardless of the person’s disability, so why haven’t we designed a system that uses the eyes to control it? That guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly[Jean-Dominique Bauby] would have been a lot quicker writing his book if he had this system.”

My Tobii is the name of the computer system, and Grid 2 the software which Brosnan and Gilligan use to make music. Originally designed by a Swedish company to allow advertisers track their audience’s eye movements on screen (and thereby find the best locations on a computer screen to place advertising), My Tobii is the first of a number of different eye gaze technologies to offer people with a diverse range of disabilities, from cerebral palsy to motor neurone disease and locked-in syndrome, an accessible and efficient method to communicate and to exert control over their personal worlds. Having used his chin to control his laptop for years now, Brosnan makes no bones about the life-changing impact that My Tobii offers him.

“I have called it the ‘Day when the eye took over from the chin’,” James says, without a hint of overstatement. It was, to say the least, a liberating experience. “When I tried it out, I couldn’t believe how fast it was. With EZ-Keys, [the software programme which James uses with his chin switch] my thought processes had to wait for what I typed. However, using the MyTobii sped the typing method so fast that at times I lost track at what I wrote.”

THE JAMMING SESSION that took place in the Science Gallery in February will spawn a further workshop in TCD’s Samuel Beckett theatre on March 31st. It will offer those with an interest in this technology the chance to find out how an individual’s eyes can control everything from choosing an instrument to selecting a chord or rhythm sequence. SmartLab’s Dr Lizbeth Goodman hopes that as well as offering some “eyes on” experience, that this workshop will help to raise awareness of the need to provide such technologies to those who can make best use of them.

“We’re trying to create better technology tools – and better social networks around those technology tools – to enable people like James to tell us what we need to know, in order to change social policy,” Goodman explains, “so that everyone will be able to express themselves. There’s so much lip service internationally about providing access for all: programmes like One Laptop Per Child and [US education legislation], No Child Left Behind, but to be honest, I think it’s all nonsense if we ignore people with disabilities.

“What we really need is for people to work together and to not settle for anything less than full creative expression,” Lizbeth continues. “The thing is, Ireland is a small enough country that it would be quite easy to make a difference for everyone, and quite inexpensively as well.”

For Brosnan, it’s even simpler. Using his eyes to communicate and to make music is yet another step in his journey in self-expression. “I communicate, therefore I am”, he declares with vim. “It’s as cheesy as how I am, but it still does the job!”

A demonstration of the My Tobii eye gaze system will take place in TCD’s Samuel Beckett Theatre on March 31. A limited number of spaces will be available from 10am-12noon to observe training sessions in which My Tobii is being introduced to first-time users. Dr Lizbeth Goodman will make a formal presentation on the use of My Tobii in performance at 1.45pm, followed by discussion. Further information from Chrissie Poulter at TCD, ph: 087-2414650