James Gips (Lee Pellegrini)

James Gips, an award-winning Boston College computer scientist whose work in assistive technology has helped people with disabilities live fuller lives, died on June 10. He was 72.

A celebration of his life will take place on Thursday, June 14, at 2 p.m. in the Corcoran Commons Heights Room.

Visiting hours will be held June 13 from 4-8 p.m. at the Roberts Mitchell Caruso Funeral Home, 15 Miller Street, Medfield.

Dr. Gips, the John R. and Pamela Egan Professor of Computer Science in the Carroll School of Management, was the co-inventor and co-developer of two groundbreaking assistive technologies, EagleEyes and Camera Mouse, which enable users to operate computers through eye or head movements. The systems have been used by people with cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, traumatic brain injury and other disorders.

“Before EagleEyes, these children were totally trapped inside their bodies,” Dr. Gips told the Boston College Chronicle in 1996, two years after formally unveiling EagleEyes. “While they may be bright and eager to communicate, they had no way to express themselves. Once EagleEyes is in their homes, there’s no telling where it will lead them.”

In creating EagleEyes and Camera Mouse, Dr. Gips – along with his collaborators, Peter Olivieri and Joseph Tecce – set the stage for a multitude of inspiring stories of families with children suffering from severe disabilities whose lives were changed by the technology. Testimonials were often delivered through print, broadcast and other media, but many came directly to Dr. Gips and his colleagues.

One correspondent wrote about EagleEyes’ impact on his five-year-old grandson Adam: “Yesterday I watched him play a computer game that made the monkeys jump on the bed while whimsical music played. Adam giggled then, miracle of miracles, Adam made it play again and then again! What kind of miracle is that you might ask. It’s the most remarkable kind if your grandson has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Adam cannot speak, sit up, crawl, walk or roll over and is fed with a tube in his tummy.

“But when Adam started using EagleEyes the world changed for him and those who love him. When Adam’s eyes dwell on a graphic icon it ‘clicks’ like a mouse. I call it the click heard around the world.”

Olivieri, a Carroll School associate professor for information systems who retired in 2011, mourned the passing of his longtime friend and colleague. “Jim was a wonderful person, kind and compassionate, bright and articulate, who loved his family, his students and his friends.  He always asked his students to think about how they could make a difference, and how their knowledge could make the world a better place.

“He himself practiced what he asked his students to do as evidenced by his development of award-winning technology to help people with profound disabilities show their humanity and become fully recognized as fellow human beings.  His research changed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of boys and girls, men and women, and his teaching impacted thousands of Boston College students. I will miss him more than words can say.”

Added Tecce, an associate professor of psychology, “Jim was a friend and special colleague. He did an outstanding job of putting into the public domain our discovery of a method to help special needs individuals. It was a privilege and an honor to have him as a co-author on my professional presentations. I will always be grateful for his professionalism.”

Dr. Gips had already made an impact in the computer science field before joining the BC faculty in 1976, through his foundational work with George Stiny on shape grammars, a specific class of production systems that generate geometric shapes as a means to study two and three-dimensional languages. In 1980, Dr. Gips – who in addition to the Carroll School  Information Systems Department held a joint appointment with the Computer Science Department in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences – was one of two BC faculty members (along with historian Samuel Miller) to win the inaugural Alpha Sigma Nu National Book Awards for Algorithmic Aesthetics, which he authored with Stiny.

“He himself practiced what he asked his students to do as evidenced by his development of award-winning technology to help people with profound disabilities show their humanity and become fully recognized as fellow human beings.  His research changed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of boys and girls, men and women, and his teaching impacted thousands of Boston College students.”

The inspiration for EagleEyes came from a casual discussion in 1992 between Dr. Gips and Olivieri, in which they talked about the possibility of controlling computers through the mind. Exploring the idea further, the two reached out to Tecce, who suggested EOG, or electrooculography, which can track eye movements by detecting electrical signals in the eye; electrodes placed around the eyes detect those signals. The three figured out a way of amplifying the signals and converting them to corresponding movements of a cursor.

Working on that basis, the trio created a prototype that enabled the user to play video games on the computer through eye movement. After Dr. Gips presented their device at a scientific conference, he was asked about its potential uses. He mused that it might help children with disabilities, although he and his collaborators hadn’t yet investigated such a possibility.

Dr. Gips, Olivieri and Tecce tested the device, dubbed “EagleEyes,” by using it with students at the BC Campus School, which serves children with multiple disabilities. Over time, they added refinements that enabled users to spell out words, create music and “eye-paint” – make colors appear on the computer screen – among other functions.

In 1994, EagleEyes was chosen as one of five finalists for a prestigious Discover Award for Technological Innovation, sponsored by Discover magazine.

The trio sought to duplicate the EagleEyes system to make it available outside of BC, such as for collaborative schools and families. It was increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand, but Dr. Gips couldn’t find investors willing to back the project until the nonprofit Opportunity Foundation of America (OFOA) expressed interest.

In 2004, OFOA signed a licensing agreement with BC to provide manufacturing, distribution and training for EagleEyes. During the first decade of the license, OFOA placed more than 280 EagleEyes systems in the US, Canada and Ireland.

Three years later, Dr. Gips won a da Vinci Award "honoring exceptional design and engineering achievements in accessibility and universal design, that empowers people of all abilities."

By then, Dr. Gips and his team had begun producing Camera Mouse, which they made available for download in June of 2007. Some 3.3 million downloads were recorded in its first decade.

“Bless you all for this precious gift to so many who lost their voice,” wrote the father of an ALS patient who used Camera Mouse. “I love you all!!!!"

On his personal website, Dr. Gips noted that BC undergraduates were involved in all phases of the work on EagleEyes and Camera Mouse, and had co-authored and presented papers. Many students “begin not by developing technologies but rather by working directly with the children who will use the technologies.”

Dr. Gips’ more recent research activity was to examine aspects of the effects of technology and new media on consumer behavior and psychology, in collaboration with Carroll School Associate Professor of Marketing S. Adam Brasel. The two formed the Marketing Interfaces Lab at BC.  

In 2015, Dr. Gips received teaching honors from both the Carroll School Honors Program and the BC chapter of Alpha Sigma Nu, the national Jesuit honor society.

Prior to joining Boston College, Dr. Gips worked at the Department of Biomathematics at the University of California-Los Angeles and at the Psychophysiology Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Dr. Gips earned a bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University.

He is survived by his wife Barbara; children Amy and Jonathan; his sister Kathy; and a grandson.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Dr. Gips’ memory to Opportunity Foundation of America or the Campus School at Boston College.

Sean Smith | University Communications | June 2018