In 2011, Connie Gibson, the gifted coordinator at Fort Couch Middle School, accompanied Upper St. Clair High School senior Matt Vernacchia to the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair. His project was a low-cost, eye-typing interface called IrisScribe, and industry sponsors recommended that he patent his work.
“The sponsors conveyed to him the typical cost to apply for a patent, which was prohibitively expensive, precluding him from being able to consider initiating the process,” Gibson said.
But Gibson’s brother, Douglas G. Gibson, a 1984 Upper St. Clair High School graduate, is a partner at Covington and Burling, an international law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., that is known for its commitment to pro bono work. After Connie consulted with Doug, he helped Vernacchia to make contact with the patent law experts at Covington. Andrea Reister, a partner at Covington & Burling, and Greg Discher, special counsel, represented Vernacchia in the patent application on a pro bono basis. Covington patent attorneys also used this experience as a teaching tool for younger associates.
After a long, arduous process, the patent has finally been issued.
IrisScribe is low-cost software that allows hospital patients and those who can’t speak to generate words with eye movements. The system monitors a patient’s gaze at a list of common phrases on a computer screen that are then displayed and read aloud through the computer’s audio system. The only hardware requirements are a computer and a webcam.
Connie Gibson remembered that Vernacchia, a 2011 graduate, wasn’t originally planning to enter the science and engineering fair, so his entry was rather “last-minute.”
“It’s a joy to watch and see the type of things that he does,” she said. “He’s truly an amazing student and a very nice person.”
Vernacchia, who will be a senior at Massachussets Institue of Technology this fall, said he’s not sure what he’s going to do with his patent for IrisScribe.
“When I was in high school, I was interested in developing software interfaces. My vision has changed since then,” he said.
Now an aerospace engineering major, this summer Vernacchia is working for Space Exploration Technologies in California, doing cockpit design.
“I’m interested in finding ways to explore space and the universe around us,” Vernacchia said.
He said that while he doesn’t currently have time to work on IrisScribe, he’s not interested in selling his patent for the project. He said he would like to have an active role in developing the product, and that IrisScribe could be a startup company for him some day.