Eyes open: Local man takes technology to <I>ER

Some huge companies compete for the privilege of paying millions of dollars for product placement on hit shows. But for one local company, a hit NBC television show came calling and didn't ask for a dime.

"The people from ER called right before Thanksgiving," says Chris Lankford, chief technology officer of Eye Response Technologies, a company that manufactures a system that allows people to communicate through eye movements.

The Eye Response technology– a computer and voice synthesizer that can attach to a wheelchair– has found a burgeoning market among individuals suffering from ALS, a degenerative neurological disease that invariably leads to paralysis, loss of speaking ability, and death. But patients generally retain the ability to move their eyes long past the time they can type or speak. (The Hook's February 24, 2005 cover story, "She's dying, his drug could save her," details the efforts of one UVA doctor to come up with a treatment for ALS.)

The February 2 ER episode features a character with late-stage ALS, and the show's producers were seeking ways to make the story realistic.

Eye Response's product beat out competitors thanks to its ease of use, says ER property master Rick Ladomade, whose job is selecting products to enhance scenes. The Eye Response system runs on Windows XP, Ladomade explains, so users can easily play games, send email, and do wireless networking– all by moving their eyes. [Disclosure: Hook publisher Blair Kelly is also the CEO of Eye Response.]

Within weeks, Lankford flew out to the Burbank, California set to help the ER staff put the Eye Response system to use.

"I figured it was probably worth my while," he says dryly.

For eight days, Lankford nearly lived on the set– up to 12 hours a day– an experience he calls "a bit surreal."

"The whole exterior of the hospital is a fa├žade," he says, but the waiting and trauma rooms "look exactly like the real thing."

Also surreal: working among the stars of the show. Goran Visnjic, who plays handsome Dr. Luka Kovac, is "incredibly tall," he says, while some of the female actors are shorter than Lankford expected. But though he watched the action unfold, Lankford says he didn't try to speak with any stars.

"They're doing their thing," he says. "I didn't want to bother them."

One person he did talk to: veteran screen actor James Woods [Be Cool, John Q], who plays the ALS sufferer at the center of the story. A doctor and former med school professor and a favorite of character Abby (Maura Tierney), Woods arrives in the ER at the beginning of the episode and communicates using his Eye Response technology and voice synthesizer. Through a series of flashbacks, the hour-long show tracks the progression of Woods' disease from the time he was diagnosed.

"It's a very emotional episode," Lankford promises. Woods, he says, is a "friendly, funny guy." And his acting chops are impressive, too.

"He did an amazing job" portraying a character progressing through ALS, Lankford says. "He nailed it."

Lankford himself was kept busy controlling the equipment from a remote mouse and keyboard.

"I'd be running alongside the camera, trying to make sure it was doing what it was supposed to do," he says. "It was a little nerve-wracking."

Despite Lankford's jitters, the ER crew was reportedly pleased with his performance.

"There were more than a few situations where Chris was at his finest, putting his nerves aside and adapting the Eye Response system to work flawlessly with the interaction of film cameras, actors, and crew," says Ladomade.

And Lankford got a chance to be onscreen for a moment as well, as an extra.

"I play a hospital technician," he laughs. "I even got a name tag."

Now that he's back at home in Charlottesville, Lankford says he's waiting to see how well product placement really works. Over the last three years, he says, the company has sold hundreds of the units, which cost between $7,500 and $10,000 and are covered by most insurance.

If the phone starts ringing off the hook on Friday, February 3, Lankford promises, "We'll be ready."

The episode, titled "Body & Soul," airs Thursday, February 2, at 10pm on NBC.

Chris Lankford and the Eye Response computer