A close-up photo of an eye. A team of Stony Brook University computer science students developed an app for individuals with ALS and other neuromuscular diseases that allows patients to control their device and smart home features with their eyes alone. PUBLIC DOMAIN

A team of Stony Brook students designed an app that can help improve quality of life for people with ALS and other neuromuscular diseases. Their app, “EyeCanDo,” was one of the winning projects at the third annual Mount Sinai Health Hackathon in October 2018.

The team consists of Furqan Baig, Hongyi Daunmu and Sina Rashidian, graduate students in computer science and Xia Zhao, a graduate student in applied health informatics. The team also worked closely with Dr. Karl Bezak, hospice & palliative medicine doctor at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine and Andrew Wang, a Three Village School District student.

Together, they worked toward the hackathon’s ultimate goal — creating novel solutions for problems in healthcare, focusing around the theme of rare diseases. “EyeCanDo,” the app the team created, is a low-cost application that helps people with physical disabilities.

“We believe that the impact of this technology will increase patient quality of life, family quality of life, as well as satisfaction,” Dr. Bezak said while pitching the app, referring to individuals with ALS.

According to the ALS Association, ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The app the team created gives patients with ALS or paralysis the ability to interact and control features in their home.

The app allows patients to control their device and smart home features with their eyes alone, by using the front-facing camera of a device to track their eye movements. If a patient stares at a certain button for longer than two seconds, it turns on or off.

“I am super excited to see someday this application makes tangible differences in quality of life among people with disabling diseases,” Rashidian said.

According to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai’s website, the hackathon was a 60-hour weekend event designed to bring together people who share complementary expertise in clinical & translational medicine, basic research, digital technology, engineering, computation and applied science.

After Zhao saw the flyer for the hackathon, she immediately contacted her labmates and told them they should create something. Rashidian explained that he always thought about the idea of having a “Siri” for patients who have severe medical conditions or for those who can’t talk.

“No one has actually done this, so we immediately started brainstorming,” he said.

The main challenge of creating the app was making sure the team could execute a proper demonstration of the app. Even one week before the hackathon, the team was unsure if the app would work.

After the team arrived at the hackathon, Bezak approached them for the first time and realized that they were ahead of everybody else in terms of the development of their idea. He immediately became interested in helping them further develop the app. “It was like a perfect match,” Baig said.

Bezak has a background in rare diseases, and realized the app would be useful if put into action. “I have learned so much through collaborating on this project with such a dedicated team of computer scientists,” he said.

The team explained that they were up against tough competition at the hackathon. There were around 17 teams with different backgrounds, consisting of undergraduate students, graduate students and doctors.

The competition judges were impressed with the Stony Brook team’s strong collaborative skills and professionalism. They won first place, and were awarded $2,500. The team is scheduled to present its work at the Mount Sinai Innovation Showcase this month.

“We created this app for interaction with the environment, instead of communication,” Rashidian said.

In the future, the team wants to expand the app to Android devices and iPads. Currently, they are awaiting feedback and looking for investors.

“The app has such a great potential to become something big,” Baig said.