Out of sight: Eye-tracking device changes paralyzed veteran’s life

Out of sight: Eye-tracking device changes paralyzed veteran’s life

John Cincar uses the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

Two eyes and an iPad is all Vietnam veteran John Cincar needs to completely transform his day-to-day life.

Cincar, a resident at Stony Brook’s Long Island State Veterans Home, lost his ability to move his arms and hands, but only needs his eyes to operate a $12,000 iPad the home helped him secure this week as part of its mission to enhance residents’ independence. With help from the device and the home, Cincar said he could open the door to a world he had not been able to access on his own for years. By looking at control keys or cells displayed on the iPad screen, Cincar said he can generate speech, activate functions such as turning on a light or television, and even surf the internet.

“It’s very easy for me to use,” he said. “It does everything. I can get in touch with the world again.”

The eye-tracking device, which the veterans home referred to as an “eye gazer,” was a by-product of a donation from Bowlers to Veterans Link Chairman John LaSpina, a Long Island native and owner of various bowling alleys across the Island. The BVL is a not-for-profit organization that works to support American veterans, raises about $1 million per year through bowlers and bowling centers nationwide, and has a working relationship with the Long Island State Veterans Home, LaSpina said.

John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home
John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

“An opportunity like this just seemed so incredibly great that we couldn’t say no to it,” he said. “We’re talking about a facility totally dedicated to veterans. The place is immaculately clean. They do wonderful things.”

The BVL donation to the Long Island State Veterans Home was made possible from the proceeds of the “PBA50 Johnny Petraglia BVL Open,” which was held at the Farmingdale Lanes from Saturday, May 7 through Tuesday, May 10.

With the Vietnam era now more than four decades old, the Long Island State Veterans Home has been seeing more veterans who served in that war coming through its doors. And with each war comes a different kind of ailment that staff must combat.

“Many of these guys, their brains are fully intact, but their bodies are shot. They’re trapped,” said Jonathan Spier, deputy executive director for the Long Island State Veterans Home.

Just five years ago, Spier said, the home had only two Vietnam veterans living there. That number skyrocketed to more than 50 by 2016, he said, with former combat men suffering from specific injuries like exposure to Agent Orange and other muscle-related difficulties.

Fred Sganga, executive director of the veterans home, said the addition of the eye-tracking device only furthered his group’s mission to enhance the quality of life of more than 6,000 Long Island veterans.

“The goal is to maximize every veteran’s independence,” he said. “We want to be strategically ready for the next generation of veterans coming here, and this technology is transformational for someone who is a paraplegic.”

When asked how he planned on harnessing the power of the iPad to his benefit, Cincar said he hopes to study new languages, like Romanian — the language of the land he was born in.

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