Thomas Hutchinson is not the stereotypical scientific genius his work may suggest. A University professor of systems engineering, Hutchinson clearly disproves the myth of the pocket protector nerd as he sits comfortably in his office. His bare feet are often perched on the empty chair in front of him.
At first glance, this self-proclaimed "crazy inventor" might not seem like the creative mind behind the life-altering ERICA.
ERICA, Eyegaze Response Interface Computer Aid, is a computer program that allows people with disabilities to communicate using only their eyes.
The system tracks eye movement through a small camera located below a computer's monitor. The camera records pupil dilation. This information allows disabled people to control a cursor on a computer screen by looking at a computer monitor. Extra equipment like headgear is not needed to operate the system.
"The goal of ERICA is to create in the silicon machine what the organic machine can relate to," Hutchinson said.
With this goal in practice, program users are able to type with their eyes by looking at a projected keyboard on a computer screen. By focusing their eyes on certain letters on the projected keyboard, disabled patients form sentences on a computer screen.
After these sentences appear on the screen, disabled people can focus their eyes on a command word on the screen for the computer to read the sentence out loud.
In this way, people possessing full mental capacities, but who may not have the muscle control they need for speech, are able to express their thoughts verbally.
"ERICA's primary function is to be the [communication] method of choice for people with the most severe disabilities," Hutchinson said.
People with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease can thereby express themselves, using computers to speak.
ERICA also provides opportunities for children born with disabilities. The program can function as a learning device that serves as a child's first form of expression, allowing children who were never able to express their thoughts out loud to communicate with the outside world.
Hutchinson said he believes that most people think of the eye as "an input device" rather than a "control device.
"The theory behind ERICA is to "use the eye as an output device," he said.
Hutchinson created the concept of ERICA
after enduring a high school football injury that made him a quadriplegic. Hutchinson said he experienced fear and helplessness due to his disability.
Once several months passed and he regained control of his limbs, Hutchinson was left with new-found peace of mind.
"Nothing scares me anymore. Nothing," Hutchinson said.
The accident also left him with a deep desire to help the paralyzed in any way he could, which led to the creation of ERICA many years later.
Since the project's conception in 1983, ERICA has grown through the work of many engineering students.
Over the years, more than 300 students have done their senior thesis work on ERICA.
Today, ERICA has become both a company and a project. According to Hutchinson, 25 ERICA systems are sold every year to handicapped people. Another two or three are sold for industrial use. Each industrial system costs between $30,000 and $40,000.
The University has several ERICA systems.
"The company funds the project's research," Hutchinson said.
Currently, Hutchinson and his students are conducting research with the goal of giving cerebral palsy patients the ability to use the system, despite their inability to control head movements.
And that's not all.
Although Hutchinson stresses that "the disability aspect of ERICA is its essence," the technology allowing ERICA to function provides numerous possibilities for future technological advancements.
Undergraduate Computer Science major Ryan Butterfoss describes the ultimate goal of ERICA as a way of "developing an 'eye mouse,'" which will complete the same functions as a computer mouse. Instead of moving a mouse, computer users one day may be able to control cursors on computer monitors by moving their pupils.
Current studies push ERICA closer to achieving its goal of "developing a much more natural interplay between people and computers," Hutchinson said.
One such study, a joint project between the University and Cambridge University's experimental psychology department, uses ERICA to study autism in young children.
The study's goal is to determine whether or not a direct correlation exists between highly focused concentration (as revealed by a test which employs ERICA's technology) and autism. Although there is no cure for autism, this long-term project may allow early diagnosis.
Researchers are also trying to use ERICA to make the polygraph test, or lie detector test, more accurate. By adding a method to measure eye response to the test, people who would ordinarily fail due to nervousness will have a more fair chance.
Despite these multiple applications, ERICA will remain focused on helping the disabled, Hutchinson said.
My work with ERICA "is a unique opportunity to see how computers can affect the real world," Engineering student Ben Darling said.