With Thomas Hutchinson's Marvelous Erica, a Flick of An Eye Brings Help to the Helpless

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

You have to know it when you see it, but the light of inspiration can be found in many odd places. Thomas Hutchinson found it in the eye of an elephant. And thanks to his inventive mind and that nameless pachyderm, thousands of handicapped people—from a cop paralyzed by a gunshot to children with cerebral palsy—may someday lead fuller lives.

The story began two years ago when Hutchinson, 50, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, visited a university-affiliated center for severely handicapped children to see whether his department could help. Hutchinson was appalled by the lifeless existence of the children, strapped into wheelchairs, row upon row. "Except for their wheelchairs, I saw nothing we had done for them," he remembers. "I thought, 'Technology has failed them.' "

For months Hutchinson vainly mulled over ways to help. Virtually all the disabled children, he had noted, could control at least their eyes. Then one night he was at home watching PBS' Nature, which featured elephants feeding in salt caves in Kenya. When one of the huge beasts turned to face the camera, Hutchinson saw an intense white glow in its eyes. It was the reflection of the film crew's floodlights. Hutchinson was jolted out of his impasse: He had the clue he needed. "If I can tell that an elephant is looking toward the camera in a TV film, then we could surely make a computer recognize where a person is looking," he reasoned.

Of that simple yet elegant idea was born ERICA, the acronym for Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid. ERICA was designed at a cost of about $100,000 with help from Hutchinson's graduate students, led by Kelly Cook, 23, and the Virginia Center of Innovative Technology. The device is a computer about the size of a 21-inch TV, programmed to respond to the gaze of a human eye. An infrared camera records light from the eye, and the computer indicates which portion of the screen the eye is focused on. A user selects from one of several choices outlined on the screen grid. For instance, with a half-second gaze one can indicate a desire to read a book, then call it up on the screen. Likewise a user could ask for a soft drink or milk. Someday, Hutchinson hopes, ERICA might enable the profoundly handicapped to hold jobs.

The first person to test ERICA was Jamie Mitchell, 18, born with cerebral palsy. He is a frail youth whose head flops to the side, a symptom characteristic of his affliction. But one day in August 1986, after he had been working with Kelly and ERICA for several months, Jamie steadied his head enough to make the computer screen react. His back was itchy, so he stared at the section indicating discomfort, then zeroed in on the complaint. Itch. Where? Back. His message signaled an attendant. It was the first time in his life that Jamie Mitchell had been able to communicate and control anything.

The first reports of Hutchinson's work caused a burst of excitement. Cable News Network ran a segment on ERICA in July 1986 that was seen by the father of New York police officer Steven McDonald. The younger McDonald had been paralyzed from the neck down by a teenage assailant's bullet shortly before. His father called Hutchinson, who responded by programming ERICA and flying with it to New York. The 30-year-old quadriplegic, whose plight had touched the nation, "helped us program and came up with ideas," says Hutchinson gratefully. "He has a very sharp mind." McDonald now is undergoing several months of rehabilitation at a Colorado hospital, but when he returns he will find ERICA waiting for him at home. With demand building for additional machines (an estimated 100,000 handicapped Americans could benefit from the invention), Hutchinson and the University of Virginia have negotiated with L C Technologies, in Fairfax, Va., to market ERICA. The devices are expected to cost about $15,000 each.

Hutchinson, who was born on a dairy farm in York, S.C., thought first of becoming a doctor but decided it was "probably boring." Instead he took a doctorate in physics and, with his wife, Colleen, now 48 (they have two children, son Eugene, 23, and daughter Rachel, 24), settled into academic life. "I'm like a doctor who never practiced," he says. But he has no regrets. "If you are lucky enough to be born into a situation in which you can make a contribution, you have a responsibility to do so."

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