James Gips, Who Extended Computer Use to the Disabled, Dies at 72
Posted June 22, 2018 5:46 p.m. EDT
It started unremarkably enough, just two Boston College computer science professors swapping ideas over a meal a quarter-century ago.
“Jim and I were at lunch one day and we decided to plan on doing some research together,” one of the professors, Peter Olivieri, related.
Olivieri suggested they come up with a list of 100 projects; his colleague, James E. Gips, thought that was overly ambitious. They zeroed in on a couple of things.
“The first item on the list was to look at ways in which the brain itself might be used to control a computer,” Olivieri said by email. “At this time, the technology to do so was a bit daunting. Item 2 on the list was to develop ways in which you could control the movement of the cursor on the computer screen just by using your eyes.”
From that initial brainstorming session in 1992, the two men and a colleague in the psychology department, Joseph Tecce, who had been studying eye blink rates, came up with EagleEyes, a technology that uses electrodes placed around the eyes to allow a user to control the computer with eye movements.
Gips, who died on June 10 at his home in Medfield, Massachusetts, at 72, did not realize at first that he and his colleagues had come up with a device that would change the lives of countless people with disabilities. EagleEyes and a subsequent technology, Camera Mouse, which Gips developed with Margrit Betke, have opened up computer use — and thus communication — to all sorts of people who, for one reason or another, cannot use a conventional computer mouse. They include nonverbal people, many of them children, whose disabilities had led others to assume that they had no intellectual life.
Gips’ daughter, Amy Gips, said the cause of death was not clear, although he had recently had surgery related to his pancreas.
“The experience with EagleEyes, and especially with the children, was just a great surprise to me,” Gips said in 2012 in an episode of “Turning Point,” a docuseries presented by BYUtv, a channel operated by Brigham Young University in Utah.
In the program, he acknowledged that he had not thought much about people with disabilities previously, although every day he would walk by a school on the Boston College campus where children with disabilities were taught.
“They were not in the center of my mind when we developed the technology,” he said. Rather, the prototype was being used to play video games. But once it was demonstrated at a technology conference, others could see its potential for people with disabilities.
One of those was Kathy Nash, who stumbled upon a brief report about EagleEyes on television and realized it could help her teenage son, Michael, who was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, was nonverbal and had no voluntary muscle movement below the neck. The family had been told that his intelligence level was below that of a 2-year-old.
Hoping to try EagleEyes on her son, she called Gips, who was resistant, since the technology was still in a developmental stage. But Nash was determined.
“About her third or fourth telephone call on that phone there,” Gips says in the documentary, “I said, ‘OK, let’s try.'”
“It was clear to me within a minute of his getting on the system that he was perfectly intelligent,” Gips continues. The “Turning Point” episode ends with footage of Michael’s high school graduation ceremony in 2003.
James Elliot Gips was born on April 3, 1946, in New York City. His father, William, was an accountant, and his mother, Helene Sally Rosenthal Gips, was a teacher.
He grew up in Larchmont, New York, where he was an excellent bridge player, winning the Westchester County scholastic pairs championship. He graduated from nearby Mamaroneck High School in 1963.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967, a master’s degree at Stanford University in 1968 and a doctorate in computer science at Stanford in 1974.
Gips worked at the U.S. Public Health Service’s psychophysiology laboratory and as an assistant research computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, before joining the Boston College faculty in 1976.
The Camera Mouse system, developed around 2000, did away with the need for electrodes by using a camera to track the computer user’s head or finger movements. For several years it was licensed to a startup company that marketed it at $395, but it did not generate enough sales to be profitable, so in 2007 the college decided to make it available as a free download.
The website for the program, cameramouse.org, says it has now been downloaded more than 3.3 million times.
Asked if he regretted not making a lot of money off the technology, Gips said: “I’m very pleased with the way this has all turned out. I’m richer in spirit.”
Gips’ first marriage, to Patricia Biggiani in 1973, ended in divorce in 2000. In addition to his daughter, Amy, his survivors include his wife, Barbara (Thompson) Gips, whom he married in 2007; a sister, Kathy Gips; a son, Jonathan; his stepmother, Joan Gips; a stepdaughter, Caitlin O’Connor; and a grandson.
Among Gips’ other areas of research was the effects of technology and new media on consumer behavior. For instance, a 2008 study by him and a colleague, S. Adam Brasel, found that television viewers using video recorders to fast-forward through commercials may actually be influenced by those commercials anyway, even if seeing a brand image for only for a fraction of a second.
In the “Turning Point” episode, Gips reflected on the unexpected direction his career took when EagleEyes proved useful for people with disabilities, and on the personal change in perspective that resulted.
“I thought EagleEyes was a technology project,” he said. “It’s not a technology project. It’s a people project.”