The Eyes Have It

Imagine surfing the Web using only your eyes. A Virginia professor is revolutionizing the way we control computers.

By Dave Ready

"I woke up in the hospital, paralyzed...the only thing I could do was move my eyes." Professor Thomas Hutchinson leans into his high-backed office chair and crosses his legs. The story of his brush with paralysis on the high school football field more than forty years ago is told with such a casual frankness that you forget to consider the peculiarity of a stocky, five-and-a half foot quarterback. Going back to throw a pass, Hutch (as his students affectionately call him) was hit on both sides by two locomotive linebackers.
Letting go of the pass was the last thing he remembers before waking up nine days later with an injury to his C-2, the second vertebrae in his neck. "I do a lot of crazy things, like flying planes," Hutchison says. "But nothing has frightened me nearly as much as being paralyzed."

Hutchinson soon fully recovered from his spinal trauma, but many do not. Those in severe diving or riding accidents, like Christopher Reeve, often lose everything but the use of part of their face. And like Hutch in 1953, they may even be powerless to communicate--powerless until now. Thomas Hutchinson's first-hand experience with this waking nightmare inspired him to create a revolutionary piece of technology to let people's eyes say what their mouths or hands cannot. Developed over the last twelve years by students and faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, ERICA, the Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid, is empowering the handicapped, deciphering some of the mysteries of human emotion, and may forever change the way we use computers.

The ERICA system is beautifully simple. An infrared video camera films the computer-user's eyeball, telling the computer exactly where the person is looking on the screen. "The eyes are primarily input devices," Hutch explains. "They suck in information just like your ears. Your mouth is an output device. Your hands are output and input devices through touch and feel. I found that if you could harness the output energy of the eye, it makes a wonderful pointer."

Wild Inspiration

In 1984, while watching a National Geographic show on elephants, Hutchinson noticed something about the infrared lights used to take photographs in darkened caves. "When the beam of light turned toward the elephants, the brightest things in the field of view were their eyes." What Hutch saw in those elephants were their pupils, illuminated by the infrared reflection from the back of their eyes.

Hutch realized that if he took a similar picture of a person's pupil, he could determine where the person was looking. Sending the image to the PC, the ERICA software tells the computer in what direction the pupil is pointing, using a reference point called the "glint." This starry dot of white light is reflected off of the cornea, the shiny front of the eyeball. You might be able to see your own glint on your monitor screen right now.

That this reference point is actually on the eye is an innovation which has made ERICA the most user-friendly system of its kind. While other eye-gaze controlled systems often use external reference points, requiring bulky headgear or restrictive bite-plates, an ERICA user needs only to sit up straight and look at the screen.

Hutchinson's other innovation has been ERICA's cutting edge software. "Other systems are out there, but they're so far behind in terms of
technology," he says. "They're still in DOS...we're on Windows 95, and we just announced moving to Windows NT." ERICA can run any program that a normal computer can.

Not only will ERICA "listen" to the eye's commands, but it will also keep a record of exactly where someone looks on the computer screen and that person's pupil size at each moment. "Pupil diameter is indicative of the emotional state you're in," says Hutchinson. "When you feel happy or pleased, your pupils open up; they close down when you're feeling displeased." Hutch describes the potential for a non-invasive lie detector, using the pupils as an accurate emotional gauge. Stroking his white beard, the professor grins with obvious pride: "A very large, unnamed government agency in northern Virginia is most interested in this." Apparently, the CIA knows, too, that eyes never lie.

ERICA Inc.

Quickly realizing ERICA's lucrative potential, Hutch formed ERICA Incorporated (www.ericainc.com), with some students and fellow systems engineering professors. A non-profit entity, ERICA plows all its revenue into more research and philanthropy. Hutch isn't in this for the money: "The sponsors and I haven't seen a dime in return," says Hutch, "but we don't expect to for quite a while."

For about $30,000, you can join the list of ERICA clients--those interested in both pupil analysis and control. Advertising firms, for example, can use ERICA to determine how people feel when they view certain images, and how long they stare. This could prove to be information so valuable that Big Brother can't help but get involved. In the future, your reactions to everything from web-sites to TV shows could be monitored by a secret ERICA-like camera inside your computer. "This has the potential for a lot of evil and also a lot of good," Hutch admits, "but you can't put genie back in the bottle."

Companies that handle hazardous materials may also find ERICA useful. Scientists could measure or manipulate material with their gloved hands while inputting data on a screen with their eyes. Video game designers may be interested in a jet-fighter simulator --you control your flight with your hands and your gun target with your eyes. "It's pretty obvious," Hutchinson says, "that the possibilities are limitless."

The Core Clientele

These large corporations may ensure the financial livelihood of ERICA Incorporated, but what keeps the ERICA team coming to work everyday are individual clients like six-year-old Molly Wen. Unable to walk, talk, or use her hands, Molly is a victim of severe cerebral palsy. The disease has caged her body in a wheelchair, and her mind inside that disabled body. Communication is limited, when possible. To indicate "yes," she looks at her father, and for "no," at her mother. It is believed that she has the mental capacity of a normal six-year-old, but since she can't use her mouth or hands, conventional teaching methods fall considerably short. "With ERICA," Hutch says, "she has finally been able to learn."

Students on the ERICA team are now designing a software curriculum to bring Molly up to speed with her peers. When she looks at particular icons on the screen, a computer voice will say, "I'm hungry," or "I want to watch Sesame Street." Eventually, says Hutch, Molly will be able to type her own commands using a visual keyboard.

"A Beneficent Robin Hood"

Some of the disabled can afford to pay for ERICA themselves, but for most of those in need of the system, $30,000 can be too hefty a price tag . Hutch has a solution to that problem: The revenue that doesn't go to paying research costs, he says, "we use to buy systems for handicapped people who can't afford them. So ERICA is kind of like a beneficent Robin Hood. The companies [who buy ERICA systems] get what they pay for, but they are also paying for systems for the handicapped."

ERICA also benefits the University of Virginia by giving students access to rare equipment. "We've got a Pentium 255 machine...even the Computer Science Department doesn't have a 255. The fastest, most powerful computers in the Engineering School were all bought as a result of activities of ERICA Incorporated." Since the system uses University equipment and student sweat, U.Va. has full patents on ERICA. Running a business inside the University is "no different than getting a grant from the National Science Foundation--its just easier," Hutch says.

The Other Pupils

How does he choose the elite group of U.Va. students to work with him on ERICA? Hutch rolls his eyes and chuckles. "Carefully! Its like breeding porcupines...it comes down to not just the best and the brightest, but the very best and the very brightest." But to those who don't have a genuine desire to help the handicapped, Hutch is blunt: "I don't care how bright you are, I don't want to see you."

Hutch's own devotion to the handicapped is surpassed only by his devotion to these students. Glancing at the assorted student photographs on his bulletin board, he boasts that his current student project-head achieved a 4.0 GPA while working 40 hours a week at the ERICA lab. And last year's head received 23 job offers from just as many interviews. "Companies know that ERICA kids are the brightest...they have a business savvy that puts them two or three years ahead of other students."

Hutch modestly claims that he just provides the "ambiance"-- that the students are doing the real work themselves. But he won't deny the importance of active student-faculty relationships. "Senior professors should be more involved with students at the undergraduate level," Hutchinson urges, "if you fail the students, you're failing yourself."

While Hutchinson may admit that he was lucky to escape permanent paralysis in high school, he attributes most of his success to hard work: "I get bored easily." A self-described "physicist without a field," Hutchinson has studied theoretical physics, chemical engineering, space science, and medicine, and has taught them all at universities throughout the world. Without depending on the establishment, he has uniquely synthesized academic research, business, and philanthropy under the name ERICA. Most folks would be satisfied with any piece of these accomplishments, but Hutch is just getting warm: "I haven't reached the peak of my career and I'm sixty-one years old...I don't expect to reach the peak for quite a while."

Next Story