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How Google Glass can improve autistic children’s social skills by reading facial expressions – SCMP


Google Glass – the once globally hyped smart glasses – seemed to have slipped off the radar after sales were suspended in 2015, just three years after they were launched. Now it is being hailed as a life-changing device for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

People with autism have trouble with social skills, and verbal and non-verbal communication.

Researchers at Stanford University have harnessed Google Glass to develop a form of self-guided therapy that families can use to coach an autistic child to read emotions in faces, ultimately improving their ability to interact with others.

Catalin Voss is the founder of the Autism Glass Project. The Stanford School of Medicine graduate student spoke at the EmTech Hong Kong 2018 conference in Hong Kong this month about his team’s augmented reality therapy that taps the Google Glass technology.

“The goal is to give a learning aid to kids and families,” explains the entrepreneur, who had previously sold his start-up Sension, a face- and eye-tracking-based innovation that discerns facial expressions, to a Toyota-owned company.

Voss and his team tweaked the concept for use on donated Google Glass sets and tested it on around 150 kids with ASD in a handful of small-scale studies.

“In general, it has improved eye contact, increased emotional recognition abilities and increased engagement in the family,” he says.

One of those trials involved 14 families who used the technology at home over a six-week period. The participants used the device for 20 minutes, three times a week. Researchers then analysed participants’ interactions.

“What we found is more complex than just an emotional intervention,” says Voss. Initially the researchers thought the technology would teach kids how to better recognise emotions such as “happy” and “sad”, but they discovered the process also sparked more conversations within the family about emotions.

“It helped kids realise there is something for them to see in faces, so they look at faces, and it sort of captures engagement,” he says. The research will be published in Nature Partner Journal’s Digital Medicine.

Several parents were stunned by changes, Voss says. “We refer to them as a ‘Light Switch Group,’ families that emailed us saying, ‘This is like a switch has been turned on [in their child] … what happened?’”

The app they developed classifies the streamed images from the Google Glass, via a machine learning-based system, and beams information back to the user through the headset in the form of an emoji in a colour associated with the emotion. Audio feedback is attached to the headgear so the user hears a robotic voice saying, “Happy,” for example, if that facial expression has been recognised.

No known cure exists for autism. Symptoms are detectable in children as young as two years in the form of difficulties in learning, communication, and social interaction. A hallmark of this condition is difficulty in identify emotions.

According to Autism Children Foundation, there are about 25,000 kids with ASD in the city, and early intervention and therapy are vital. However, a perennial issue in Hong Kong is there are not enough therapists available and equivalent specialists from private practices usually charge HK$900 and up per session.

As a result, many parents join a waiting list for government-subsidised care, which can take from 12 to 24 months, according to the Rainbow Project’s website, an autism charity group in Hong Kong.

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