New technology allows a woman with cerebral palsy to play music with her eyes

Jess Irwin, Dr Jordan Nguyen and the Australian Piano Quartet Source: Insight

Changing the game for people with disabilities through the power of new technology.

At a backyard pool party ten years ago, Dr Jordan Nguyen decided to attempt an especially creative jump from the diving board. Lacking control, he careered head-first into the water and felt a “massive crunch” in his neck as his head hit the bottom of the pool.

He was taken swiftly to hospital and found  to have torn a number of muscles in his neck. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

“It made me think, ‘what would life be like if this was a permanent thing?’,” he remembers, speaking with Insight’s Jenny Brockie on this week’s show. “And the next day when I was able to walk and move around I realised how lucky I [was], so I started looking into disability,” he says. “I had no clue about it.”

At the time he was studying his PhD in electrical engineering, but the experience saw him move towards biomedical engineering, learning more about neuroscience, robotics and artificial intelligence to see how they could assist people with disabilities.

“I learned all about the world of cerebral palsy [and other disabilities] and … I was finding people who were changing my perspective on life,” he says.

“People who were more motivated, who were more driven, who were doing more with [their] life than I was or anyone I knew, so I started thinking if technology could potentially provide a platform, provide a bridge to reach those goals, to reach those creative expressions, to reach the aspirations that you have, then let's see what we can do with it.”

When Nguyen met photographer and designer Jess Irwin, who has high-level cerebral palsy, they discovered a shared passion for music. After going to a few gigs with Jess, he realised how much she wanted to be able play music and express her musical creativity independently.

So he created a system, using cheap eye-controlled technology, which allows Jess to play music – with her eyes.

By hovering her vision over sections of a screen, she can control the introduction of beats, sounds and certain instruments.

The Australian Piano Quartet came on board to help train Jess and create music with her, culminating in a remarkable performance at the Sydney Opera House.

“Playing at the Opera House was a very surreal feeling,” Jess tells Insight. “Four months prior I would have thought it would be humanly impossible. It was very strange because this iconic building was where I had watched some of my favourite musicians play in the past. Then I suddenly was on the same stage.”

“I remember our final rehearsal at the Opera House hours before the performance, I was sitting between Jordan and James and suddenly I exclaimed:  "Guys, we're on stage at the Opera House!"

He provides the technology to achieve our dreams.

Jordan says what began as a passion has now turned into a responsibility, knowing the positive impact he can make.

“Jordan has a saying,” recalls Jess. “‘One life is to improve many’. I believe this sums up everything he does. Jordan's passion is to create inclusive technology to enable people with severe physical disabilities to gain more independence in their lives.

“This enables them to have an increase in freedom and people like myself he provides the technology to achieve our dreams.”


See Jess Irwin and Dr Jordan Nguyen’s incredible story airs tomorrow night Insight’s Game Changers | Tuesday 28 Februay 8.30pm SBS