(Courtesy of NIU)
(Courtesy of NIU)

While Google Glass might be more known for angry confrontations in San Francisco bars and debates over driving with the device, two professors in DeKalb, Ill. have been quietly experimenting with how Glass could be used to help a marginalized population: students with autism.

In a study run this summer, NIU special education professors Woody Johnson and Toni Van Laarhoven, used Google Glass to give job training to three students with autism at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Ill. Using the video playback function, students were able to watch a video demonstrating certain tasks, such as packing supplies in a first aid kit, then mimic those movements in real life. Though wearable tech has largely been lauded as the next wave in consumer products, researchers have found wearables can provide pathways to new opportunities for previously disadvantaged people.

In this study, Van Laarhoven recorded herself on Google Glass packing a first aid kit. She placed gauze, antiseptic wipes, and other materials in a black bag, narrating her actions, and checking off items as she went. Students then played the video on Glass, and mimicked her movements. Though Johnson and Van Laarhoven said the students struggled a bit at first, fumbling with materials, within three sessions they had mastered using prompts through Glass, learned how to pack materials, and were ready to learn more.

Tools like Glass allow students to not only learn a vocational task, said Van Laarhoven, but also to learn independence.

“When a person learns to operate a device, the device becomes something to cue them,” added Johnson. “But they are the person controlling the device, so really they are using a self-management tool.”

Previously Johnson and Van Laarhoven worked with iPads and iPods as training tools but struggled with ways to keep the tech connected to students’ bodies without it getting in the way, or students being able to keep track of devices. Wearable tech on the other hand, stays connected to students’ bodies as they move throughout their day.

(Courtesy of NIU)
Johnson (right) and Van Laarhoven (center) talk with a special education teacher at Matea (Courtesy of NIU)

“You think of it as a prosthesis. Something that someone uses to help them be more independent,” said Johnson. “That way it’s not different than me wearing a pair of glasses to correct my vision, or wearing a hearing aid. A wearable device is the opportunity for someone to integrate it into their daily life more easily.”

Tech has provided a new window of opportunity for people with autism. iPad app developers, such as Chicago’s Infiniteach, use mobile devices to create social and academic personalized learning opportunities for students. Recently Stanford researchers started the second clinical trial of an experiment that helps kids with autism recognize emotions through cues on Glass.

Johnson and Van Laarhoven say their findings present evidence that this could work with more populations at a larger scale. Moving forward they are looking into developing an app where people with limited motor abilities could control the device with their voice or a nod of their head. They’re also hoping to get an Apple Watch to experiment with a device attached to the wrist.

Right now Glass still has its limitations: it has a low battery life and tends to overheat. And as students progressed, some learned even faster than the Van Laarhoven’s instruction, but couldn’t speed up the video. Though Glass shut down its Explorer program last winter, Johnson and Van Laarhoven believe that the next iteration of Google Glass, which is reportedly going to be more focused on enterprise over consumer customers, will improve these capabilities and allow for further software development.

But for now, they’re going to keep exploring.

“In doing research on tech, you always have to be planning for the next step,” said Johnson. “You can’t always wait for the perfect device to come along to start doing research. You get used to working with limits of what tech can do, knowing that another iteration of tech will come along.”