Seeing through the mysteries of the eye: Lafayette's Jim Marggraff
and his Science Cafe pupils
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Serial entrepreneur Jim Marggraff, inventor of Leapfrog LeapPad and LiveScribe's Smartpen, showed off his old and new toys at a library "Science Cafe" event June 18.
By the time this story hits print, his all-enhancing Eyefluence company will be approximately 60 days from launching its "awesome website."
Doesn't sound like much? Log in and read the description of what Marggraff's latest endeavor will offer -- wearable technology that will "enable the disabled and superable the abled," all with a pair of geeky glasses and the body's fastest moving part: your 900-degree-shifts-per-second eyes.
"I'd like you to look at the world differently," Marggraff began.
An innocuous statement or a pipe dream coming out of most people's mouths has some weight coming from Marggraff, who collects patents like postage stamps and holds various inventor, entrepreneur and even Father of the Year awards. (His son, Blake, won the top Intel International Science and Engineering award in 2011; daughter Annie loaded up on accolades at Acalanes High School's 2013 graduation ceremony.)
He's already helped the one in seven Americans who can't identify the United States on an unmarked map -- with a hollow globe and a pen. Touching the pen to a location on the globe's exterior causes a computer board the size of a pack of cards to respond in categories ranging from music to military history to famous people. Touch Brazil, get a Samba; touch Germany, hear about the Berlin Wall. Marggraff said the reaction in 1998 to his "touch the world and learn its meaning" mindset was "You're crazy: kids want screens." But it took Leapfrog's sales from $31 to $680 million in approximately four years.
In 2004, a yen to make a reading, writing, speaking and listening toy resulted in LiveScribe's Fly pen. Demonstrating the bulky stylus -- rather like an overfed Sharpie -- on dot "Fly" paper he developed with a Swedish paper company, Marggraff drew nine unimpressive vertical lines.
"The tool is watching the dots go by," he explained. "The data goes into the pen, then into the computer."
A person taking notes with the Fly pen can simultaneously record audio. It's a game-changer for students (or anyone) taking notes at a lecture. The pens have four- or eight-gig memories, Wi-Fi and cloud capability, plus advanced audio options.
"What if I could draw my own user interface?" Marggraff asked. Seconds later, touching his pen to the written word "beer," the computer offered multiple language translations and a hearty joke/hint to the evening's presenters for his preferred post-show libation. A few strokes more, his keyboard could compose and play back an entire orchestral score.
But even his ability to turn nine lines on paper into a sonorous miracle was cast into shadow by a pair of chunky, superhero-in-disguise glasses.
"As you see, my hands are aloft," he said, his eyes bouncing around a digital keyboard and "Transform intent into action through your eyes" appearing on the screen.
A camera, mounted on the glasses' exterior, live-streamed the sold-out audience's "Oh, wow!" reactions. Tiny interior cameras tracked his eye movements while an infrared 800-nanometer light and LEDs in the frames supplied illumination. This form of remote traction, recording pupillary movement with glints taken off the cornea's surface, creates a ray, making 3-D "point of regard" possible.
The potential applications are astounding: drowsy drivers, Post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers, eye-recognition security systems, dyslexics and people unable to speak or move their limbs, stand to gain from the technology. Already, Marggraff's work with neurologist Dr. William Torch, who invented an eye-tracking device, signals a realignment in his focus from toys and awesome gizmos to digital health and diagnostics.
"There's a lot of need, but companies don't spend money on this," he said, introducing a video of Steve Gleason, an NFL player diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in 2011.
Gleason used to fling his anatomical superstructure at punts and opponents: two years after diagnosis, he can no longer speak or feed himself. Marggraff said Gleason's determination to communicate is inspirational.
The Eyefluence glasses, which cost millions to invent and fabricate, may soon be "cheaper, lighter, and adaptable to different needs." Marggraff said.
Audience questions addressed subjects ranging from possible use by the military to whether or not emotional arousal, along with vision, could be tracked.