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Can Google Glass apps offer a path out of autism?

In Google Glass and specialized applications, a startup sees a potentially powerful combination to help kids who have trouble interacting — and it all starts with eye contact

Can technology help children with autism accomplish what other educational efforts have not? Ned Sahin aims to find out.

Sahin founded Brain Power, a Cambridge startup that is using Google Glass to teach children with autism how to better engage and socialize with people. Brain Power is developing applications that display images of popular cartoon characters on the screen of Google Glass, so that when an autistic child looks at an adult talking to him, an image from, say “Angry Birds” or “Frozen” pops up.

The goal is to draw kids’ attention to faces. When they turn their heads to make eye contact, the cartoon goes away and the face is revealed, and they can earn points, as they would in a video game.

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Another app digitally accentuates the person’s eyes to attract attention, because autistic children are known to focus on the speaker’s mouth.

“We are designing tools to coach children . . . to make eye contact, increase connection to those around them, and unleash the potential of their brain,” Sahin said.

Brain Power will test its product in a research study at Massachusetts General Hospital, beginning in April.

“What is cutting-edge about this tool is that it gives the person immediate direct feedback. Also, you can track progress with real data that’s easy to collect,” said Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist and researcher at Mass. General who will direct the upcoming clinical trial of the device at Harvard Medical School this month. Herbert hopes the data collected from the Google Glass experiment will yield new insights into the complex neurological condition.

Though Brain Power is still in its early stages, its potential is gaining attention for Sahin, who was keynote speaker at the Autism Investment Conference, which highlights business opportunities for addressing the disorder, held at Google’s Cambridge offices this month. (In January, Google said it would stop producing the Glass prototype as it rethinks the device, which is still available to “certified partners.”) It was at an earlier conference on autism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that Sahin had an epiphany about bringing his scientific and technological training to bear on the disorder.

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Sahin, 39, did his graduate work in neuroscience at MIT and Harvard, won a Harvard PhD dissertation prize, and has published in prestigious scientific journals. He received his PhD in 2007, worked at Bell Labs, and was a principal investigator for several government contracts related to his field of cognitive neuroscience.

Ned Sahin, the founder of Brain Power, gave the keynote address at the Autism Speaks conference in Cambridge last week.
Ned Sahin, the founder of Brain Power, gave the keynote address at the Autism Speaks conference in Cambridge last week.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

At the 2013 MIT autism conference, Sahin was listening to specialists speak about the challenges they face with the neurological disorder. Sitting in the audience, wearing his pair of Google Glass, Sahin had an idea that the device could be used to help children with autism.

So he began researching the problems many parents have when they try to engage their autistic child. One issue came up a lot: the child’s inability to maintain eye contact or to communicate feelings. One parent said he would tell his child “I love you” at bedtime every night and wished the child could say it back.

“Love may be a one-way act, but this situation can be maddeningly painful,” Sahin said.

Sahin began to wonder whether video games, such a powerful draw to children for their fun and sense of adventure, could be used to teach social skills. Later that year, he founded Brain Power in Kendall Square to develop game-like applications on Glass for families with autism.

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To Sahin, Google Glass has unique advantages for autistic children over other high-tech devices. “While an iPad encourages a child to look down and away from the real world, with Glass the child is naturally encouraged to look up into the world,” Sahin said, “and our device rewards him with looking people in the eye and engaging directly.”

One powerful feature of Google Glass is the accelerator, which tracks head movements. Sahin uses it to determine when a child turns to look to another person and rewards him for responding.

In January, Brain Power hosted its first open house. About a dozen children were able to try Google Glass and Sahin’s software. and their parents learned more about the test program.

Attending were Sara Gaynor, a special-education teacher, and her 11-year-old son, Sean. After trying out Glass, Gaynor said her son told her: “They’re awesome. I think those glasses make me smarter.”

Later, Gaynor recounted how Sean jumped up, arms outreached, and told her, “I think I am breaking out of an autism prison!”