Tue, 15 Feb 2011 16:03:03 +0000

I was supposed to be like someone with locked-in syndrome — someone whose consciousness is stuck inside a motionless body. I was instructed to sit rigidly in a desk chair, and stare at a computer screen. I could move nothing, except my eyeballs.

And my challenge was daunting: Type a sentence.

Within seconds, I wrote: “Here are some apples.”

It was as if I was telepathically talking to the computer. I concentrated on the letter “H” — and it appeared on the screen. Then the letter “E” and, voila, it was there.


I rarely see a machine that blows me away. It’s not ever the technical specs or the philosophical implications. It’s the magical feeling — the sensation you get when you watch David Copperfield move a mountain, or when you read a novel that sweeps away your imagination.

I caught a glimpse of it a few weeks ago, when my teacher gave us the task of writing an e-mail — while sitting on our hands. Most people licked and nosed their way to Gmail. I licked and nosed my way to a snotty, slobbery keyboard. So, afterward, I came home and tried it on the iPad. And within seconds, I sent an e-mail with the subject line: “Hello, Alvin. You are cool.”

There’s something devastating about losing physical ability. But that means there’s something profound about regaining function. It’s like putting on glasses for the first time at age 60.

That said, someone has to create that magic. And, as I’ve found out, it’s incredibly frustrating.

The mechanism behind the telepathic computer is, well, technical. It uses eye-tracking to figure out what letters you're looking at — and, as you hover over a letter and blink, it registers a key press. Cool, but not magical.

It requires hundreds of hours of sitting in front of a computer, doing math and working through logic problems. It’s immensely frustrating — at least for me — because I make my living as a writer, and getting an idea from head to paper is simple. I hear cadences of words in my head, and then I push the keys on the keyboard to make them visible.

For me, communication is smooth. It’s pleasing.

So, in recent weeks, I’ve had another phase of doubt — of whether I’m doing the right thing, attending this technology school. Several people have told me that I should stick to writing — stick to storytelling — because it’s what makes me happy; it's how I create magic.

But then I wonder about the people who can’t communicate — people who can’t tell stories. And I want to help them. Because I know how magical it is to be able to tell a story. So it’d be an awful shame if someone died with a lifetime full of stories held hostage in their head.