In the blink of an eye
October 9, 2006
In 1997 Dr. William Torch, a neurologist and sleep specialist in Reno, was confronted with a problem: How to communicate effectively with a patient who had developed viral encephalitis and was paralyzed from the neck down.
Typically those patients, who lose the use of all their muscles except the eyelid, are asked to blink their eyes to indicate “yes” or “no,” but blinks can be confusing, and it’s hard to differentiate between a normal and a purposeful blink.
“I got this crazy idea. I wanted to help him communicate with his nurses and doctors using the only muscle he had available,” said Torch, an inventor a former president of the Nevada Inventors’ Association, in fact when he’s not practicing medicine.
Torch is also the founder and director of the Reno startup Eye-Com Corp. and the Washoe Sleep Disorders Center in Reno.
“I wanted his (the patient’s) eyelid to be like a switch so he could call a nurse and turn electrical devices on and off. I thought if I aimed a beam of light at his eyelid, it could detect whether the eye was open or closed and for how long and even harness the eye blink to a computer.”
Firmly committed to what he calls his “crazy idea,” Torch went to work. With the help of a high school student, he built a tiny biosensor using an infrared light that attaches to a pair of eyeglasses.
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“When my eye was closed, the buzzer would go off, and it stopped as soon as my eye was open again,” he said. “It was an eye-blink communication device for paralyzed individuals.” Torch said a blink lasts about one-fifth of a second, and if a person blinks more slowly the device sounds an alarm.
But there was a glitch the system worked only in the dark, but the problem was corrected in the second-generation Eye-Com.
The eyes close five seconds out of every minute, Torch says, and blinks are the best measure of drowsiness.
Safety experts say measuring blinks to determine alertness has applications for civilian and military life.
For example, the system could warn long distance drivers and pilots when they are losing their edge. It also can be used to monitor effects of medication and physical changes of the eye.
The Eye-Com device can also be used as a substitute for a computer mouse for those who want more agility and speed, Torch says, or those with carpal tunnel syndrome or other disabilities blink your eye and move the cursor.
By 1999-2000, Torch’s device had evolved into a sophisticated biosensor communicator and controller.
“I realized I had developed, without knowing it, a monitoring device for drivers that can also control electronic devices,” said Torch.
In 2001, Eye-Com Corp. was born and Torch won his first grant from the U.S. Center for Disease Control. A few investors heard of Torch’s work and invested several hundred thousand dollars.
Then Torch met Lawrence J. Udell, executive director of Intellectual Property International Ltd. of Castro Valley, Calif.
“What he needed was a team of people beyond what he was doing in the research area,”said Udell.
Since then, Eye-Com, which developed a driver simulator to test the device on human subjects, won the Small Business Innovation Research Tibbetts Award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, obtained six patents, and was awarded research grants from the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, and the Transportation Authority totaling more than $2 million.
Though Eye-Com has not yet begun manufacturing, Udell said: “The company has unbelievable potential because of the various markets that are available for the use of the technology.”