Obituary: Thomas E. Hutchinson / His invention helps disabled communicate

Aug. 1, 1936 - Sept. 2, 2013

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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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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."

Mr. 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 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," Mr. Hutchinson said in 1999. "Eyes are the most robust muscle in the human body, the last to die."

Mr. Hutchinson helped launch a company to manufacture the device, which was first used by a teenage boy with cerebral palsy.

Scores of U-Va. graduate students worked over the years with Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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