Helping People Understand The World Of Autism
Sign-Up  |  Log-In

Autism And Google Glass: Teen's Software Could Help Users Recognize Emotional Cues
By Robin Wilkey
Posted: 08/13/2013 3:50 pm EDT | Updated: 08/15/2013 6:28 pm EDT

Penicillin, X-rays, Viagra: Some of man's greatest discoveries were made by accident.

And though one California teen's software was meant for educational purposes and video games, it's the accidental use –- a therapy for autism –- that's drawing the most attention.

With his startup Sension, 18-year-old Stanford University freshman Catalin Voss set out to create facial tracking software that would help students better interact with educational content.

According to Wired, the software was originally designed to make online teaching tools respond to a user's behavior for a more interactive learning experience.

"But we quickly realized that this stuff goes beyond what we'd intended," Voss told The Huffington Post. "Through the process of building the facial tracker, we discovered it could be used to track emotions, as well."

Indeed, the software can recognize facial movements like a smile, a frown or raised eyebrows. And with the release of Google Glass, Voss, whose cousin is autistic, saw a light bulb: a tool that could help autistic users identify facial cues in real time.

In a demonstration video on the Sension website, Google Glass outfitted with the software is pointed at a girl smiling broadly. The digital display reads "happy." Turn the glasses to someone with wide eyes and an open mouth, and the display reads "surprised."

Hypothetically, an autistic user wearing Google Glass with Sension software could interact with others while being alerted to their social cues.

“Anything that can be used to facilitate social understanding in people with autism is potentially beneficial,” Derek Ott, a professor in the Psychiatry Division at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, told Wired. “A lot of today’s social-skills training is done in an artificial setting. If you can do it in the moment, in the real world, it could be very beneficial.”

While the real world application could be a breakthrough, Voss said he hopes the software will be used as an educational tool, rather than something that would need to be used at all times.

"The ideal candidate would be someone who is a quick learner, but who has trouble identifying social cues," Voss told HuffPost. Voss said he hopes the software could be used in a setting that would eventually teach autistic users how to interpret clues themselves. "We don't want someone to be wearing Google Glass forever, but rather to use the software to learn," he said.

Voss admitted that the software is still in the building phase, but is hopeful for the future, noting that it could potentially help people with other disorders.

"It's exciting for us to see our software making real change," said Voss. "We're only looking forward."