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Chris Lankford Helps Paralyzed Patients Find A Voice

May 12, 1999 -- The eyes may not only be the windows to the soul, but also the doorway to independence for people who are paralyzed.

By gazing at images on a computer screen, handicapped patients using ERICA can write, log onto the Internet or operate equipment in their homes, thanks to the work of Chris Lankford, a fifth-year master's degree student in electrical engineering at the University of Virginia, and his professor, Tom Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, a professor of systems engineering and the inventor of scratch-and-sniff technology, came up with the idea of ERICA (Eye-Gaze Response Interface Computer Aid) about a decade ago. Since then, he has invited hundreds of students to help him develop the technology, but few have contributed as much to the effort as Lankford.

The system, basically a computer and camera setup, works by bathing the user's face in invisible infrared light, enabling the camera to determine precisely where on the computer screen the person is looking.

Lankford has helped fine tune the system to account for the distortion in the image of the eye caused by eyeglasses and currently is working on ways for it to cope with users who are palsied and can't hold their heads still.

Lankford also has been responsible for shrinking the size of the keyboard displayed on the screen and creating more room to put up menu options. One exciting result of this effort has been to free enough screen space to display two programs at once, allowing users to move beyond proprietary software and operate off-the-shelf commercial software.

Current users include a 7-year-old girl in New Hampshire with cerebral palsy and a former professor of mathematics in Central Virginia suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.

"The most beneficial part of working on ERICA is that you can see the payoff right away," Lankford says. "You see the impact it has on people. While we are developing other applications for the technology [especially in advertising, diagnosis of autism, and lie detection] ERICA was originally developed for the handicapped and that remains our prime focus."

A 1994 graduate of Midlothian High School, Lankford will complete his five-year bachelor's and master's degree program in electrical engineering this year. He plans to pursue a doctorate in systems engineering with Hutchinson, working on various aspects of ERICA.

For more information, call Chris Lankford at (804) 982-2065, or cpl2b@virginia.edu. Tom Hutchinson can be reached at (804) 924-1723, or teh@virginia.edu.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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