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Google Glass Could Be a Social Gamechanger For Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Glasses equipped with artificial intelligence help people through social interactions.
Reading emotions using Autism Glass at the Beakerhead science festival in Calgary. Image: Lisa Willemse

If you thought Google Glass, the massively-hyped (yet ultimately unpopular) augmented reality headwear, was dead—think again. A Stanford University team has brought it back to life as a platform that aids and trains children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to read social cues.

While reading facial expressions is difficult for all of us at times (Was that a smile or a grimace?), for people with ASD, social interactions and friendships can be especially nerve-wracking. People on the spectrum may avoid eye contact and therefore fail to recognize and interpret facial expressions, challenges that also have far-reaching repercussions in school or at work.


As part of the recent five-day Beakerhead science festival in Calgary, Alberta, the public got a rare glimpse of this developing technology, appropriately named Autism Glass. I was among those eager to give them a try.

In the Stanford adaptation, the Google Glass' outward-facing camera records the actions and facial expressions of the person you're talking to, which is fed into the Autism Glass app on a dedicated Android device. (An iPhone version will come, but for now, they're using the Google platform for development and testing.)

The app's artificial intelligence reads the movements and expressions of others and codes them based on their emotion: happy, interested, angry, disgusted, etc. Within moments, a colourful emoji is projected back to the glasses and appears to the wearer on a small screen fitted onto the upper right corner of the device, giving an instantly recognizable emotional cue that the wearer can see.

The live recording is likewise coded and saved on the Android for review and feedback between the child and medical caregivers and/or family later on.

Emojis were chosen based on more than their pop culture appeal. Aaron Kline, Lead Mobility Engineer for Autism Glass in Stanford's Systems Medicine Division, explained that the use of colourful emojis is linked with the configuration of the glasses, where the display appears in the upper right field of view, as well as the biology of vision.


Read More: Why One Software Company Is Going Out of Its Way to Hire People With Autism

"It's a question of what's going to be legible in that space and what's going to be processed by kids all along the spectrum. With vision, as you start on the outside and work your way in, colour gets registered before text does and a long word like 'disgusted' may not be fully understood, or in some cases can't even be read by some people," said Kline. "Having a colour-coded system with expressive emojis has shown so far to make the most sense to users."

Kline was leading the Autism Glass demos as part of Beakerhead's afternoon street science event in downtown Calgary. There was an instant attraction to the technology among those who saw and tested it, an interest Kline said is eclipsed by that of the ASD kids currently in the 25-family pilot study taking place in California. Kids as young as four have been fitted with the device as part of the study—an ideal age insofar as ASD goes, since it's been shown that intervention in the early years of development can have a big impact.

"One aspect we've found with every child we've worked with is they have a very strong connection with technology, and they're very excited to play with tech they've never seen before. This technology has been a powerful hook because the kids want to try it and show it off to their friends."

Of course, wearing it in the home and with friends is quite different than wearing it in public. One of the reasons Google Glass was shelved rests with public discomfort with being recorded, something Kline noted may change over time as similar products enter the market.

The Autism Glass team is considering lower profile arrangements, which may integrate the technology into regular glasses, contact lenses, pinhole cameras, or possibly an audio-only interface. For now, development is continuing with Google Glass as the "off-the-shelf" wearable, owing to a Google donation.

There is plenty of work that needs to be done before Autism Glass hits the market as a reimbursable medical device. The current study, which is near completion, is working with the families to iron out kinks in design as Stanford prepares for a larger clinical study it hopes to launch later this year.

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