Using Google Glass to Help Children on the Autism Spectrum

Google Glass, the company’s smart glasses initiative, may be effective in helping those with autism recognize emotion and make eye contact. Google quickly realized that the general public was not ready to accept Glass after having a poor commercial debut years ago, but Stanford University researchers may be helping the device catch a second wind. By equipping it with facial recognition features, these scientists are empowering Google Glass to help patients with autism. This Stanford study was recently published in JAMA Pediatrics.

This trial is one piece of a large effort to use technology to help those with autism, with efforts including interactive robots and computerized eyewear. The work aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of Superpower Glass, an artificial intelligence-driven combination of Google Glass and a smartphone app, in improving social outcomes for those on the autism spectrum.

Background of the Google Glass Study

This randomized clinical trial provided participants with the Superpower Glass intervention alongside standard of care therapy, while the control group simply received the behavioral analysis therapy. These participants, aged 6-12 years with a formal autism diagnosis, used the Google Glass intervention in their own homes. The Google Glass promoted facial engagement and emotion recognition by detecting others’ facial expressions and providing feedback. Families of the children were asked to have 20-minute sessions 4 times per week for 6 weeks.

Overall, these researchers found that the participants receiving the Google Glass therapy showed more significant improvements than those receiving standard therapy. This Superpower Glass intervention could also be used to measure changes in behavior, a metric that is particularly challenging to evaluate in patients with autism.

How Superpower Glass Came to Be

While he was a freshman at Stanford in 2013, Catalin Voss began building software for Google Glass that enabled it to recognize images. This innovation made Voss think of his cousin with autism, who used to practice recognizing facial expressions while looking into the mirror. Voss had the idea to use Google Glass to automatically read others’ facial expressions and track when they were showing emotion.

“I was trying to build software that could recognize faces,” Voss said to The New York Times. “And I knew that there were people who struggled with that.”

Voss is now a PhD student, and though the Google Glass’s commercial spotlight has faded due to concerns of personal privacy related to its camera, Voss continued to develop his software. Teaming up with Stanford professor and autism researcher, Dennis Wall, Voss was eventually able to conduct the Superpower Glass study described above.

Going Forward with the Project

One concern with this type of study is that it relies heavily on observations of parents who are assisting their children with the technology, claims University of California, Los Angeles psychologist Catherine Lord. These parents are fully aware of the Google Glass intervention being used, so there is the possibility that their observations are not reliable.

Nonetheless, Voss and colleagues feel that this study is progressing the healthcare field towards broader use of technology in treating autism. The research team has licensed their technology to Cognoa, Dr. Wall’s Silicon Valley startup. This company aspires to commercialize the Google Glass method after receiving FDA approval. They are optimistic of this approval; however, this may take several years to attain.

Many feel that other new technologies have the potential to help patients in similar ways. For instance, voice recognition platforms like the Amazon Echo could help children with speech disorders. Researchers caution that such implications of technology will require validation through research before being rolled out.