Google Glass may have never been a hit with the average consumer, but it could soon become an important tool for children with autism who hope to improve their social skills.
A new exploratory study published in npj Digital Medicine provides fresh evidence that augmented reality glasses paired with the right software can make a big difference for kids with autism.
The study looked at the effects and feasibility of using a wearable called Superpower Glass. Developed by a team at Stanford University School of Medicine, Superpower Glass runs on Google Glass and an Android smartphone. It uses machine-learning-assisted software to help children identify emotions as they navigate social interactions. Kids with autism typically find it difficult to recognize facial expressions and make eye contact.
In the study, 14 children tested Superpower Glass at home for a little over two months. Children between the ages of 3 and 17 with an autism diagnosis used the device, which has game and “free play” settings. At the end of the study, the children scored an average of 7.4 points lower on a scale that measures social impairment; higher scores indicate a more severe autism diagnosis. (The median decrease was seven points.) Six of the children’s scores were so much lower that they moved to a less severe class of autism.
“Some families have commented that it’s as if a switch has been flipped,” says Dennis P. Wall, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and biomedical data sciences at Stanford Medical School. “They’re saying, ‘Now my child is looking at me.”
While the findings are promising, Wall says they should be interpreted cautiously. The study didn’t include a control group, which means the researchers can’t really judge the size of the effect on the children.
The next phase of the research is a randomized controlled trial involving more than 70 children who either used Superpower Glass or did not. Wall says that study is complete and shows similar positive effects for children using the wearable, but the research won’t be published until later this year.
The software developed by Wall and his colleagues recognizes happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear, contempt, and neutral emotions. When a child wears the Glass, they receive audio-visual feedback that reflects emotions captured by the device’s outward facing camera.
“Some families have commented that it’s as if a switch has been flipped.”
Kids who use Superpower Glass can play a game called Capture the Smile, which is a “scavenger hunt” activity that prompts the wearer to evoke a laugh or smile from someone. In the game Guess the Emotion, children try to make eye contact with their parent and guess which emotion they’re demonstrating.
Wall says the app uses techniques similar to those found in standard behavioral therapy for children with autism. In that setting, therapists use flashcards to help kids understand how to identify and read emotions. Yet there’s often long waiting lists to see a behavioral therapist, and Wall says children may benefit most when they have earlier access to treatment.
While there are other efforts to develop wearables to aid people with autism, including a product called Brain Power, Wall says his team has focused on phases of clinical testing to ensure that Superpower Glass is both feasible and effective. Though Superpower Glass was developed using Google Glass, the software itself can be run on an Android phone connected to any type of augmented reality glasses.
But Wall estimates it’ll be at least a year before Superpower Glass goes commercial. That will take a company licensing the technology and using its capital to get regulatory approval for the wearable. He hopes that it’ll become a type of therapy insurance companies and Medicaid will reimburse, so it can be widely accessible to as many young patients as possible.
“There are really exciting opportunities we’re missing right now,” Wall says. “Once [children] begin to appreciate the variation in human faces, they can subsequently grow on their own and become engaged, and gain a confidence that would otherwise be missed or lost.”