SC native who created device for disabled remembered as someone who helped open doors

The Washington PostSeptember 23, 2013 

Thomas E. Hutchinson, a University of Virginia engineering professor who created scratch-and-sniff technology by accident and later invented a device to help disabled people communicate by sending commands to a computer through the movement of their eyes, died Sept. 2 at a hospice in Charleston, S.C. He was 77.

He had a stroke in 2009, his wife, Colleen Hutchinson said, and had complications from dementia and heart ailments.

In 1952, while playing in a high school football game in his native South Carolina, Hutchinson suffered a severe concussion and was carried off the field. He was unconscious for eight days and, when he awoke, was temporarily paralyzed.

“It was the essence of terror,” he told the Charlotte Observer in 1999. “The only thing I can relate the experience to is someone with claustrophobia waking up in a casket buried alive. I had a terrible headache, and it only got worse as I began to realize the only thing I could move were my eyeballs.”

He soon recovered from his injuries, but he determined that, if given the chance, he would do whatever he could to devise a method by which people who were paralyzed or disabled could communicate.

Thirty years later, soon after he joined the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia, Hutchinson visited a center for disabled children. He was dismayed to find them virtually helpless.

“Except for their wheelchairs,” he told People magazine in 1987, “I saw nothing we had done for them. I thought, ‘Technology has failed them.’ ”

At about the same time, Hutchinson watched a nature show on television about elephants. He noticed that their eyes reflected light when they were filmed at night with infrared cameras.

At that moment, he realized that the light in an elephant’s eye could offer a lifeline to the disabled children and others who were immobilized and unable to speak.

“If I can tell that an elephant is looking toward the camera in a TV film,” he said in the People interview, “then we could surely make a computer recognize where a person is looking.”

Hutchinson, who had medical degree and a Ph.D in physics, applied several scientific disciplines to his new project. He brought together physiology, optics, computer science and biomedical engineering and, by 1984, had invented and patented what he called eye-gaze technology.

His Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid – ERICA, for short – uses infrared light to track the movement of a person’s eyes across a computer screen. The changing focus of the eyes causes the computer’s cursor to move to different keys or visual images, allowing people to communicate like anyone else with a computer. They can type on a keyboard, change heating and air-conditioning controls and surf the Internet.

“Eyes had never been used before as an output device for a machine, but I knew the eyes would be key to the solution,” Hutchinson said in 1999. “Eyes are the most robust muscle in the human body, the last to die.”

Hutchinson helped launch a company to manufacture the device, which was first used by a teenage boy with cerebral palsy. The boy’s first communication summoned an attendant to scratch his back.

Scores of U-Va. graduate students worked over the years with Hutchinson on his eye-gaze technology, which is used by thousands of people with disabilities throughout the world.

“It really opened doors they thought had been shut,” said Chris Lankford, a U-Va. graduate who later became a co-owner of the company founded by Hutchinson. “It allowed them to express themselves and communicate on their own.”

Thomas Eugene Hutchinson was born Aug. 1, 1936, in York, S.C., and grew up on a dairy farm. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from South Carolina’s Clemson University in 1958 and 1959, respectively.

After receiving a Ph.D in physics from the University of Virginia in 1963, he worked for 3M in Minnesota, where he accidentally developed a form of “microencapsulation” in which perfume oil could be enclosed in a form of plastic and applied to paper. Advertisers and magazine readers came to know it as “scratch and sniff.”

Hutchinson taught from 1967 to 1976 at the University of Minnesota, where he also received a medical degree. He was at the University of Washington from 1976 to 1982 before returning to U-Va., where he was considered a charismatic professor. He was also a visiting scholar at Britain’s University of Cambridge.

During the 1990s, he often testified as an expert witness in materials science, particularly in trials involving artificial joints and medical devices. He was also chairman of U-Va.’s faculty senate and its grievance committee in the 1990s, when the university passed a rule forbidding faculty members from being romantically involved with students under their supervision.

He retired from U-Va. in 2005 and moved to South Carolina, where he was affiliated with the College of Charleston.

He was married to Colleen Ray in 1958. They divorced in 2007 but continued to live together in Mount Pleasant, S.C., until Hutchinson’s death.

Other survivors include their two children, Rachel Hutchinson of Mount Pleasant and T. Eugene Hutchinson Jr. of Seattle.

In 2010, Eye Response Technologies, the company that Hutchinson founded, was sold to DynaVox. Although it is no longer called ERICA, the eye-tracking system he invented continues to offer a voice to people who had once been silent.

“As an engineer, it’s really rare that you see the impact of what you’re working on,” said Lankford, who received his doctorate in systems engineering under Hutchinson. “He always said our mission is to help people. He really fostered that idea.”

Gazing into the future

The following profile of Hutchinson was published in The State newspaper on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2000


Staff Writer

Tom Hutchinson harbors a radical notion.

In the not-so-distant future, the University of Virginia engineering professor speculates, the mechanical mouse could be obsolete, replaced by technologies that will employ the human eye to signal the most complicated of tasks to the personal computer.

One gaze of the eye will take you to e-mail. Another will take you to a favorite Web site. Yet another will open the way to composing music or conducting research at libraries around the world.

The computer of the future, he theorizes, might be able to assess through the eye whether a pilot is fatigued or a child suffers from autism.

It is a notion that had its roots on a South Carolina football field, long before anyone dreamed of the power and reach of the personal computer.

There, on a cold autumn night in 1953, two hefty linebackers from Kershaw County High School slammed into the slight, 16-year-old Hutchinson, junior quarterback for the Winthrop Training School Wildcats.

Hutchinson woke up days later in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the shoulders down, not even able to blink his eyes.

'The most frightening experience.' The paralysis was temporary, the blood clot at the base of his neck slowly dissolving over the next several weeks.

But Hutchinson did not know that as he lay in the York County hospital.

He was a South Carolina farm boy, accustomed to vigorous outdoor activity on the dairy farm his parents operated outside Rock Hill in the little community of Newport.

And now he was contemplating the prospect of lying on his back, immobilized, for the rest of his days.

"That was the most frightening experience of my life, being paralyzed," he said.

When Hutchinson woke from his coma, the first reflex that came back to him was his ability to blink. And a germ of a thought formed in his head, that if he ever regained use of his legs and arms, he would do something to help those in similar straits.

"At that point, I thought if disabled people can do anything, it will almost certainly be the eyes," he said. "If you could ever link eyes to the outside world, then you're OK."

The birth of ERICA. Hutchinson abandoned football after his jarring gridiron experience.

But he continued to pursue his studies at a rapid-fire pace. After graduation from the Winthrop Training School, he studied physics at Clemson University, obtaining bachelor's and master's degrees in 1958 and 1959. He garnered a Ph.D. in physics three years later at the University of Virginia.

He worked in industry and in academia, picking up a medical degree along the way.

In 1983, shortly after joining the UVa faculty, Hutchinson set out to invent a computer system that would track eye movement and allow handicapped people a way to communicate. (The U.S. Defense Department had laid the groundwork for such experimentation with studies in the 1960s on eye-tracking for guided-missile systems.)

Hutchinson had seen a National Geographic documentary on elephants and became intrigued by the effect of infrared light on the animals' eyes. He speculated that a computer, in tandem with digital imaging, could be used to calculate the changing location of the pupil relative to the glint off the cornea. Once that path could be located and traced, he theorized, it could become possible to determine where the user's eye was focused.

Using off-the-shelf computer hardware and video equipment, and writing his own computer code, Hutchinson developed a system that he would call ERICA, for Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid.

The first systems were bulky contraptions, expensive and limited in accuracy, but Hutchinson found there were people willing to give his experiment a try.

A New York City police officer, paralyzed by a bullet, was the first to use ERICA in 1986.

Since then, more than 150 people, some paralyzed by accidents, others suffering from cerebral palsy or the muscle-destroying amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as Lou Gehrig's disease, have used ERICA as a means of communication.

Hutchinson and his students maintain 10 active ERICA systems, computers that interface with Microsoft Windows and allow access to the World Wide Web. Among them is one used by Stephen Hawking, the brilliant Cambridge University physicist who suffers from ALS.

The path of the eye. In a small office a few blocks from the heart of the University of Virginia, Hutchinson and a small band of current and former students toil over computers, studying esoteric technological data known as gaze trails, the path the eye travels when looking at a computer screen.

They believe gaze-trail technology will be among the keys to unlocking new adaptations for ERICA far beyond service to the handicapped.

They are not alone. About a half-dozen firms around the country specialize in some form of eye-gaze or eye-tracking technology.

Some, like ERICA Inc., are assisting the handicapped in communicating through control applications. In those, the eye effectively becomes a word processor, providing the handicapped, and sometimes voiceless, person the ability to type out responses, alert caregivers to their health needs and perform more complicated tasks such as researching Web sites through the Internet.

But the companies also are identifying "passive" applications that could take the technology into schools, on airplanes and into the nation's businesses, said Joe Lahoud, president of LC Technologies Inc., in Fairfax, Va. LC Technologies has developed its own eye-gaze computer, including a small version that mounts on a wheelchair.

A computerized analysis of a pilot's gaze might determine if he or she is too fatigued to fly safely, he said. Schools might one day be able to track youngsters' eye movements to find out why a student is dyslexic or a slow reader. The monitoring and analysis would be invisible to the computer user and would not require any effort on his part.

"I don't see it as pie in the sky at all," Lahoud said. "The technical problems remaining to get eye-tracking technology off the ground are minimal."

On the crest of a wave. Like Lahoud, Hutchinson believes there are unlimited applications for eye-gaze technology.

This spring, Hutchinson positioned ERICA for profitability, severing the invention's financial ties with the university. He wants to take his privately held company, ERICA Inc., public. (UVa shares patent rights with Hutchinson and his graduate-student partner, 24-year-old Chris Lankford, for the computer's imaging system, called GazeTracker.)

ERICA Inc., which holds eight patents, has links to big players in the field, including Lucent Technologies, Ameritech, Microsoft and Boeing.

"Now we have a huge opportunity, and it's time-dependent, too," Hutchinson said. "It's like being on the crest of a wave. If you get a little behind, you're in deep trouble."

Simply put, his dream is this: "We would expect at some point for ERICA to be incorporated into mainline computers as a standard device, just like you would incorporate a mouse."

For all of Hutchinson's enthusiasm, there are skeptics among those who study eye-tracking technology.

"I'm kind of leery of saying the eye-tracker would replace the mouse," said Andrew Duchowski, assistant professor of computer science at Clemson University. "Eye-tracking could possibly augment the mouse."

Duchowski, who is heading up a three-day symposium on eye-tracking research and applications this November in Florida (, said scientists have identified some barriers to a total eye-gaze system, including one known simply as the "Midas touch."

"Everything gets clicked, whatever you are looking at," said Duchowski, who specializes in visual perception and human/computer interaction.

"I don't think the eye will ever replace the mouse," he said. "They weren't designed to act as pointers."

But he said the range of papers that will be presented at the November conference suggests a myriad of applications for eye-tracking.

The mystique of ERICA. In the 17 years since ERICA's invention, hundreds of University of Virginia engineering students have signed onto Hutchinson's dream.

More than 300 master's theses have been written on ERICA. Hutchinson said the system has undoubtedly improved with the applied collective brainpower of the university's best and brightest.

"ERICA is not a project, it's a family," he said. "There is a mystique of working on ERICA and with ERICA that has pretty much spread throughout the school and the university."

Part of the lure is Hutchinson himself, an energetic pied piper of a professor who has a gift for seeking out and nurturing innovation and creativity in his engineering students.

"Good professors are able just to sense good students, really good students," Hutchinson said. "You can pick them out, and it's hard to say why."

Although he holds the lofty title of William Stansfield Calcott Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and has completed stints as an associate dean, students say he is as comfortable as an old shoe. "He's really understanding, and he gives you a lot of freedom," said Brian Jones, an engineering graduate student who works on ERICA.

Hutchinson said Lankford, who holds the title of CEO as well as director of research and development of ERICA Inc., spent much of his time in Hutchinson's undergraduate design class "with a faraway look in his eyes."

But the professor came to know Lankford, of Midlothian, Va., as a creative thinker and a whiz with computers. Hutchinson sees Lankford, who is also pursuing his Ph.D. in systems engineering, as his successor on the ERICA project.

While Hutchinson still handles the optics for ERICA, he credits Lankford with improving the accuracy of the software many times over. In addition, Lankford has resolved the distortion dilemma of those who wear glasses.

"It's been a progression," said Hutchinson, "but a whole new set of ideas got together when Chris and I got together."

Open to ideas. Ideas are what Hutchinson thrives on. So when he hops out of his faded 1963 British Racing Green MG-GT and bounds up the stairs to ERICA Inc., there are usually a couple of trial balloons waiting for him.

Ben Darling, a graduate student, is shipping off to Cambridge University, where he is using ERICA to study eye movements in autistic children. By determining differences between autistic children and normal children, there is hope for earlier diagnosis of the syndrome.

Jones, who like Darling is one of the university's cerebral Rodman Scholars, is looking at head tracking. That means he analyzes in three dimensions how a computer user positions his head while typing or browsing the Internet. He has his own Web site ( to explain the science of head tracking.

"He was a 'Doom' master until he got a girlfriend," Hutchinson chuckled gleefully in making introductions. It is a good-natured zing that garners laughs from around the room.

His students call him "Hutch" and dish it back to him in full measure. But they admire his enthusiasm and brainpower.

"He's very open to new ideas," Lankford said. "He's definitely willing to consider anything new that you bring toward him. He's not a pushover, but you can convince him - he doesn't get into real hypothesis bias."

A systematic mind. Brainpower is what has propelled Hutchinson through life, said his former English teacher, Bernice Yeager. However, there were some in York County who wondered if the hammering he endured during that 1953 football game stimulated his brain cells.

"I knew he got a jolt, but no, I don't think he woke up a genius," the 85-year-old Yeager noted wryly. "The brain doesn't work that way."

Hutchinson was among a small group of children chosen to attend the Winthrop Training School on the campus of Winthrop College (now a university). It was a place that nurtured students in a small setting - Yeager taught Huchinson English from seventh grade to graduation - and sent them out with the intention they would do great things.

Hutchinson did not disappoint, even though he had a bit of trouble with spelling, she said.

"I'm not going to sound like he's perfect," said Yeager, who still tutors students in Rock Hill. "He did have a battle with spelling for a while."

But she said the pupil she still calls "Tommy" came up with a solution. "He said, 'I'm going to develop a system here. I'm going to work on 10 words each night until I enter Clemson,' " Yeager recalls.

"He had a mind that was systematic," Yeager said. "He loved to discover things. To some people, physics is not, shall we say, a walk through the park. He gloried in the experiments he was able to make."

Unlimited possibilities. For all his intellectual gifts and professorial accolades, Hutchinson is not above considering the possibility that ERICA could make him rich.

It won't be because he's selling so many systems to the handicapped, although Hutchinson insists that will remain his core mission.

Where ERICA could hit paydirt is in the marketing of its tools for eye-gaze analysis.

Internet companies, for example, could use the technology to determine the best place to position ads on the computer screen. And there is always the tantalizing possibility that one of the big computer players could buy ERICA.

The company's Web site ( describes ERICA's GazeTracker system as a "unique solution for climbing inside of a customer's head in order to see what they are looking at and what they truly think of what they see."

"By examining the patterns of eye response and movement, this innovative system has provided researchers with physical evidence to associate pupil dilation with emotion. The possibilities for eye-gaze technology are limitless. And ERICA is leading the way."

LC Technologies' Lahoud, who partnered with Hutchinson in the early days of ERICA and remains a friendly competitor, said he believes Hutchinson can succeed only if he expands ERICA beyond a student-run company.

"We know that if this technology is going to explode, we have to get resources into our company," said Lahoud. Hutchinson, he said, would have to do the same.

"This technology is definitely going to occur in some shape or form," said Lankford. "Whether or not it's ERICA remains to be seen. I definitely think it's a race, but it's foggy out there. You don't know who's doing what."

At 64, the peripatetic Hutchinson still believes there are plenty of ideas to explore. He has a house at Kiawah Island and entertains the notion of holding a joint professorship - at UVa and at a South Carolina institution.

Then, he said, he might bring part of ERICA Inc. home, somewhere within shouting distance of that football field where it all began.

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