Her name is Blanche and she lies in bed, as she has since the fall of 1978, staring at Tom Selleck, the Blessed Virgin and "The Young and the Restless." She waits -- for her husband who has not come in two years, for her children who sometimes visit on holidays, for someone to change the channel.
Today she waits for Martin King.
King is the inventor of the Eyescan Communicator, a computerized eye-monitoring system that gives voice to people who have no other way to speak. He lives a life of chips and diodes, input and output, modems and programs. He is exhilarated by high-speed CMOS integrated circuits, enthralled by EPROMs. He is the new American hero: the computer nerd cum inventor.
"Invention is not how to do something but the perception of need," he says at the door of the nursing home. "To be an inventor is to perceive need."
Blanche's need is clear. Six and a half years ago she entered a hospital for minor back surgery and left a quadriplegic. She can feel but she cannot move. She can smile but cannot tell you why.
Right now her main communication aid is a 4-by-6-inch card crayoned in primary colors, the letters of the alphabet aligned under the numbers one through five. King reads the numbers and letters aloud. Blanche nods when he reaches the right one.
"One, two, three, four, five," he says. "One, two, three, four, five."
Blanche nods at a four, then an I, then a T and an H, until slowly, inexorably, she says, "I think of old men being inventors."
King, who is 35, kneels by her side, holding her hand. He is tall, 6-4, he thinks. Kneeling, he can look into her eyes, which is not so much a nicety as a necessity. Blanche says people who know her can read her eyes. King's device can read her eyes and translate their position into written speech. Blanche has been testing it for him since last December. The first time they used it she broke her glasses, and today they will buy new ones.
The question is: Will King's machine make a significant difference in her life?
"Yes," says Blanche, who agreed to be interviewed as long as she wasn't identified. "I like to run my mouth all the time."
King sighs. "You're going to make this funny, aren't you?" he says.
The question is posed again: Will it make a significant difference in her life?
She looks to him, but his head is buried in his hands.
"The bottom line is, 'Who gives a damn while I'm lying here?' " King says. "Blanche won't tell you that. So I will. Isn't that so, Blanche?"
She nods as vehemently as she can, and smiles.
"One, two, three, four, five," King says. "One, two, three, four, five."
"Let's go get the glasses," she says.
Martin King lives for technology and makes it live for him. He is consumed by the possibilities and the limitations. The paradox enlivens him and exhausts him and keeps him awake for days at a time. He keeps a coffee mug in the cab of his truck and a laundry bag in the back.
"Martin is very typical of the crazy inventor type," says Mary Brady, assistive device specialist at Pennsylvania Special Education Resource Center.
"I hate that tag," King says. "Because of all the things it denotes. The eccentric guy in the back yard, not directed at reality, a little crazy. You get a picture of Charles Goodyear, who ran around in his rubber clothes for 10 years and tried to convince people rubber was a great thing.
"I hate it," he says later, "probably because it's too accurate."
One night three years ago he read a novel about the don of a Mafia family retired to a penthouse in Florida. "He had a stroke and the only thing he could do is move his eyes," King says. "I thought, 'This is really stupid. I could help this guy communicate with a computer that monitors where his eyes are looking while he is looking at a display of characters.' "
He quit his job and founded Eyescan Inc., gambling that he could find a way to make his idea work. For 18 months he worked alone in an apartment above a garage on a farm in Alpine, N.Y. Eyescan occupied the bedroom. King slept on the porch.
He put $50,000, all of his savings, into the company. An equal amount has been invested by his mother, his girlfriend Ritchie Patterson and her brother Hugo, the president of Eyescan. King lives on the $350 a month his mother sends him.
Last fall he became an adjunct specialist at Michigan State University, working with Dr. John Eulenberg, director of the Artificial Language Laboratory. He has not yet gotten around to unpacking the boxes that litter his living room. There are two chicken pot pies and a few hot dogs in the freezer, and dishes in the sink. "I do feed the birds," he says.
He works 16 to 20 hours a day. Some nights he never leaves the office. Sometimes he struggles with depression, as he has off and on since 1979. His eyes look as tired as his jeans.
"It's my life," he says. "I'm 100 percent into it. This is not at all like work to me. It's toyland in a certain sense. Going home to sleep is actually a distraction."
He is compelled by the twin gods of idealism and obsession. He believes in Eyescan -- "it works, damn it" -- and believes it is not enough.
"It's like you fall in the bottom of the pit and somebody gives you a stepladder that's two feet high," he says. "But you're still 100 feet under the ground. Man, you are down. The incremental change it makes in Blanche's life as compared to the change that's necessary, which is to be whole again, is just nothing. It's not that the contribution is insignificant. It's just that the pit is so goddamned deep."
Blanche does not yet comprehend the poetry of Martin King's invention. Right now, for her, Eyescan means a visitor, a touch of the hand. "What she doesn't realize is how the machine will put her in contact with people," King says. "She hasn't seen that yet."
It will allow her to make phone calls and receive mail, to shop and perhaps even hold a job, all through a computer. King says she will be able to do all this by September, which is when he expects to have Eyescan on the market. He hopes to sell it for less than $2,000, one-fourth the price of the Eyetyper, the only other comparable device available.
Companies in Australia, the Netherlands and Canada, as well as the United States, are working on eye-gaze systems. Eulenberg says there are 100,000 people in the United States and 1 million worldwide who could use a device like Eyescan. King estimates that there are 20,000 to 50,000 people in the country for whom eye communication is the only appropriate technology.
"The population with that particular disability is increasing enormously," says Virginia Stern of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, because stroke patients, disabled newborns and others with cerebral palsy and Lou Gehrig's disease are all living longer.
King has studied the statistics. "I have to know," he says. "I have every penny I own in this." He has learned about the politics of the handicapped, their militancy about cost, cosmetics, portability and the right to be consulted on design. He has listened to the experts, who doubt that he will be able to produce it for less than $2,000 and, even if he can, that he will be able to market it without help from an established company.
"I wish it was a nice, sweet story of 'mad inventor struggles with handicapped girl to make miracle product,' " says Brady. "It's poignant. Here's this guy really trying to do something, and the whole thing might fail because of economics."
"They don't believe it," King says. "They don't have the imagination. Never show a half-finished product to a fool."
His office is as meticulous as his house is disheveled. There are no windows. The only source of light is the insistent fluorescent bulb above and the computer display screens that keep him company. The oscilloscope shines. The computers whirr. The cutting edge is a very organized place. The Eyescan prototype sits on a formica counter: a pair of black-framed glasses, the right lens fixed with a cylindrical device the approximate size and shape of a salt shaker.
Inside, the eye sees a multicolored display composed of seven hexagons, the letters of the alphabet divided among them and grouped around centered dots. In order to type, say, an A, the eye fixes first on the letter, which is blue, and then on the hexagon with the blue dot. "Beep, beep," the computer says. An A appears on the screen.
It is a dual fixation device. Although it is slower than a direct gaze mechanism, which requires the eye to fix on only one character, it is also more reliable. King expects users to be able to type at least 50 characters a minute.
Research in the area is not new. "The military has been increasingly interested in hand-free control, using the eye and the head to operate devices in the environment of the cockpit," says Brady, who supervised a Defense Department project involving the development of an electromagnetic head tracking device for aircraft pilots.
"At the same time, rehabilitation researchers have been interested in eye control, because with most disabled people it's the last site of bodily control. When everything else goes, what they have left is control of the eye."
The essence of the invention is the sensor ring within the cylinder, composed of "six infrared LEDS light emitting diodes , which are solid state light sources like tiny light bulbs, and six photo-transistors that have the ability to sense the light being reflected back from the eye," King says. "We turn on one of those light bulbs at a time and we look at the reflected intensity at various positions around that ring. You can imagine if I shine a flashlight in your eye and watch how much light is reflected back, that the light will vary depending on where you are looking from. This change is what we use to measure eye position. The computer processes the reflection.
"The novelty of the technique is that the sensing mechanism is very simple -- there is no hardware, no optics, no lenses. The complexity resides in the software. We let the microprocessor do the work."
"Martin likes to belittle it because it's such a seat-of-the-pants invention," says Hugo Patterson, who runs the business.
In November 1983, six months after he started, King was able to write a few words on the screen. He knew the technology was sound. He has been refining it ever since, substituting cheaper, smaller, simpler parts, watching the price fall from $20,000 to $2,000.
For that price the user will receive the sensor ring tethered to a microprocessor, 5-by-8-by-2 inches, with a 16- to 20-character display. It can function as an independent communication aid or can be plugged into a personal computer equipped to dial the phone, receive mail, synthesize speech or shop at Bloomingdale's. "Plugged into society," King says. "That's the important part."
Questions remain. "The questions I have are the visual fatigue, the difficulty calibrating and the cosmetic problem of having a big glob hanging in front of your eye," Brady says.
King says that eventually the user will be able to memorize the display and remove the cylinder from the glasses, leaving only the sensor ring. Patterson made a large plexiglass display for Blanche so she could begin to memorize the positions of the letters.
The Eyetyper, which has been on the market since December, performs the same functions as Eyescan but is a stationary device that requires the user to sit motionless in front of it -- making it inappropriate for those with cerebral palsy, for example. Mark Friedman, who developed the Eyetyper for Sentient Systems Technology Inc. with students from Carnegie-Mellon University, says the company will market a head-mounted device in the fall.
The competition is fierce. The realities of the marketplace conspire against going it alone. "If I were he and my goal was to help the greatest number of people, I wouldn't try to do it myself," says Barry Romich, president of Prentke Romich Co., which produces electronic aids for the handicapped. "What I would suggest is he license someone to manufacture and produce a line, work with someone who has the marketing distribution and the manufacturing technique. I see Martin as a developer, not as a businessman."
Romich has expressed an interest in Eyescan, and they have already had some talks. King considers the options and the ironies.
"There is a paradoxical niche created by a void in our society," he says. "With all the technology around, it has passed over the special needs of the disabled. It left a hole that I fell into.
"We're only just learning what the technology is for. For the last 20 years the only thing we could think to do with it is play damn video games. Right now, the revolution is coming."
Martin King is a high school dropout who joined the Army four days before his eighteenth birthday. He spent a year in Vietnam as an air traffic controller and a year as a disc jockey in Buford, Ga., when he got back, his first exposure to the world of electronics.
He earned a high school equivalency degree and was admitted to Cornell University, thanks, he says, to family friends with alumni clout. He spent 2 1/2 years studying 20th-century literature and then decided he had to sail the Atlantic. He took a leave of absence and worked as a computer programmer until he set off in July 1976. He didn't take a radio transmitter.
He returned home to Bellevue, Wash., in the fall of 1976, got married, got a job as a cabinetmaker, spent four months in the Philippines working on a data base system for family planning and got divorced. He moved to a cabin in Maine and tried to write, but "I didn't have anything to say," he says, "so I went back to Cornell in physics. I was always scientifically oriented, but I didn't have the education. I hadn't even taken algebra when I got there."
He completed his degree -- "a stringy B.A. in physics" -- in 2 1/2 years. "I live life like a horse wearing blinders," he says.
He was working at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) laboratory when he read the book about the mafia don. "I think Martin is as close to a genius as I've ever come across," says Prof. Boris Batterman, director of CHESS. "Also, he's crazy. He really is. His mind bubbles more than he can handle."
Always, ideas. "I used to say as a little kid I wanted to be an inventor," he says. "I had 'American Science and Invention,' a big book that is published with big pictures of inventions through the ages. I think I always had ideas."
Late at night, he sketches designs for multipurpose billboards that could be stacked vertically along highways. Or a toaster that works like a steam iron. "Toast always gets cold," he says. "But you can't keep it warm because it dries out. So what you need is a little place where you can put water in and it controls the humidity and you put it on warm and it'll keep the toast indefinitely.
"That's a how-to invention. How to make it not soggy. But the key is the perception of need. Everybody eats toast."
Last fall he accepted Eulenberg's invitation to Michigan State. "You come in here and there are disabled people working," King says. "They are not treated as theoretical entities. They are treated as real people."
Eulenberg introduced him to Blanche and to Michael Ryan, a 6-year-old boy who became a spastic quadriplegic, attorneys said, because of medical malpractice. His parents sued, and when the case against the insurance companies went to court, they went to Eulenberg for help. They needed to demonstrate the intellect Michael can't articulate.
He was videotaped smiling at his mother, communicating with his eyes. Then he was hooked up to Eyescan, equipped with a special display of objects -- a ghost, a bed -- instead of letters.
King stands in the Artificial Language Laboratory watching the videotape of Michael using the machine. "Look at the bed," the therapist tells him. The cursor darts around the display.
"Go for it, Michael," King says, watching.
The cursor stops on the bed. The computer beeps.
"There you go, kid," King says, allowing himself a moment of exultation.
Upon reflection he is more dispassionate. "It was a question of how much would he receive, showing he was capable of an intact intelligence and thus capable of using a communication device, and that he needed more money than just life support," King says. "He needed money to support a technology to give him an education."
After the videotape was shown in court, the insurance companies agreed to a settlement that guarantees Michael a minimum of $26 million over the course of his life.
"We always knew the potential was there," says Kaye Ryan, Michael's mother. "We just didn't know how to get it out of him. It gives you all the hope in the world that he'll be able to speak his piece."
The errands are done, the glasses purchased. Martin King cradles Blanche in his arms, as if she were a baby. As he lifts her out of her wheelchair, he whispers in her ear, "I'd kiss you if I wasn't so busy."
Blanche smiles at the clumsiness of it all.
He had not seen her in a month. The last time he visited they made banana daiquiries in the blender by her bed, and Blanche had to remind him not to use too much rum. When he left he said he wasn't sure when he would return. She said, "Well, I'm not going anywhere."
She is 46. She has two teen-age children, a boy and a girl. She used to be a dental assistant. "I was very active," she says. "I could do lots of stuff -- knit, crochet, ceramics."
Now she is dependent on others to cater to her needs, intuit her feelings -- to paint her nails lavender for Martin King or indulge her crush on Tom Selleck.
Recently a student at MSU gave her some snapshots of Selleck in skimpy basketball shorts. "Thanks," Blanche said. "But I'm not into behinds. I'm into eyes."
For the last six months King has relied on her eyes to tell him if his machine is working and how it should work. She is asked whether this makes her feel important.
"I never thought about it," she says.
Three weeks later a letter arrives. "You asked me what I thought of Martin," Blanche writes. "I adore him! He always takes time to find out what I want to say, and to someone who can't talk, that means a lot.
"You asked me if the Eyescan makes my eyes tired. Just dry.
"You asked me about sleep. Sometimes, I just stare into the darkness. I get turned every two hours. At night, I don't require much sleep."
The letter bears King's return address. He had mailed it for her.
"I go down to see Blanche now because she is dependent on me, because I like her," he says. "My feeling is a combination of commitment and friendship.
"That's the one thing that takes me out of the lab that I will do and not kick my feet about, because it's important" -- he laughs, hearing himself -- "and blah, blah, blah, I'm such a hero."