Former University of Virginia engineering professor Thomas E. Hutchinson died Sept. 2 in Charleston, S.C. He was 77.
Hutchinson, who earned his Ph.D. in physics from U.Va.’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1962, working with professor Jesse Beams, returned to his alma mater 20 years later as the William Stansfield Calcott Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
In the 1980s, Hutchinson invented the Eye-gaze Response Interface Computer Aid, or ERICA, which was developed into a sophisticated yet simple computer system that enables handicapped people to communicate using their eye movement. Among its users is Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Hutchinson, students and disabled people who benefitted from ERICA were featured prominently in the media – the New York Times, People and TIME magazines among them – in the late 1980s and ’90s.
He often told the story of the source of his early inspiration: In 1953, he regained consciousness after a high-school football game injury to find himself paralyzed from the shoulders down. He recovered, but never forgot the terror it provoked. Thirty years later, when he was watching a National Geographic documentary about elephants, he noticed that infrared light reflected off the animals’ eyes and thought the idea could possibly be useful in making a computerized eye-tracking system.
Over the course of 20 years, hundreds of engineering students worked on the ERICA project as part of their thesis research and refined the system, which has helped thousands of individuals with disabilities to communicate and to control off-the-shelf computer applications through eye movement alone.
Hutchinson told the Virginia alumni magazine in 1999, “ERICA would only be an idea if it weren’t for the students. ... They took it from the original idea, and even today, they work very hard to enhance the already remarkable capability.”
ERICA Inc. became Eye Response Technologies and is now part of a multinational company, DynaVox, which specializes in equipment for augmentative and alternative communication.
Hutchinson chaired the Faculty Senate and its grievance committee. He was a fellow of Hereford Residential College, faculty adviser to the Trigon Engineering Society and member of the Raven Society, in addition to other committees and groups at the University. He delighted in helping students, writing letters of recommendation, networking on their behalf and jump-starting their careers.
“His generous spirit, kind smile and raucous laughter will be missed,” wrote Chris Langford, one of his former doctoral students and business partner in ERICA Inc.
Before coming back to Charlottesville, Hutchinson was a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he also earned a medical degree, and then the University of Washington.
After he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Clemson University in 1958 and ’59, he started his career as a scientist with 3M Company in Minneapolis and developed what became scratch’n’sniff technology.
Following his retirement from U.Va., he moved to Charleston, where he was a University Professor at the College of Charleston.
Hutchinson is survived by his wife, Colleen, son, Gene, and daughter, Rachel.