I’m delighted to welcome Katie Chodosh who has written a guest blog for DART this week…
Google Glass is probably the most-talked about piece of wearable technology in the history of…ever. The glasses – designed with no lenses and a small computer and camera mounted to one side, displays information just like a smartphone and interacts with the internet via natural human language. You say “OK Glass, take photo” and so Glass will. You say ‘OK Glass, jump’, Glass says, how high? (not quite – but you get my point).
Glass will also have apps, just like a smartphone does. One of those apps is Sension.
Sension, originally inspired by a drive to reform online education, is a face-tracking technology for Glass that allows the user to recognize another person’s emotion. When a user looks through Google Glass at another person, Sension software does what it does and voila – a reading like ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘neutral’ pops onto the screen.
As Autism is often earmarked by difficulty understanding social cues, news on this app quite reasonably led to discussions of how those with Autism can use Glass.
I am not at all opposed to those with Autism using technology if it will help them to communicate with the people around them (and vice versa) in any way whatsoever. My younger brother Jake is on the severe side of the Autistic spectrum, with very limited verbal communication and immeasurable levels of understanding. We use picture-sequencing apps to show him what he is going to do that day (to ease the stress of the unexpected) and it works an absolute treat. He is very happy to play on his iPad mini in his own time and whilst he won’t use it at home, we do know that he uses his iPad at college to communicate with his teachers.
This is not exclusive to Jake – the ASD community has taken to using smartphones and tablets with gusto because they are intuitive to use and help those who can’t interact verbally. The capacitive screen allows for accuracy with just the use of the human finger, and the display is a natural place to look when reading. There are loads of apps designed specifically for those with Autism – it is amazing.
By comparison, here are a small number of very practical reasons why those with Autism might struggle to use Glass:
- Glass requires something to touch your face. The skinny titanium headband stretches across your forehead and hooks behind your ears. This alone has every potential to be a deal breaker for a community who are known to have heightened senses.
- Glass uses verbal commands, which (obviously) rules out those who cannot communicate verbally.
- Glass can use finger gestures but requires very fine motor skills and a direct correlation in movement between what you’re seeing and what you’re doing. The touch interface is on the side of your head, whilst the command is in front of your eyes. Not half as straightforward as a tablet.
- Glass uses eye tracking and it has been proven that a minority of those with Autism move their gaze more slowly, which could make usability a bit more difficult.
- At this stage, expression readers such as Sension are very young in terms of their sophistication. At this stage, the best they can do is detect the rather more obvious expressions – a big smile, a frowning face. Most people with Autism and especially those who could use a device as sophisticated as Glass, can work these out. It’s the really subtle changes in expression that the rest of us don’t even realise we’re registering, that need to be picked up and until these apps are sophisticated enough to pick these up, they might not really have a huge amount to offer at this stage – despite the hype.
There are of course, opposing arguments to all of these points for those on the ASD spectrum. After all, every individual with autism presents with unique characteristics. Some aren’t so sensitive to touch and won’t mind wearing the device. Some will be able to learn how to use the eye tracking technology element. Those who can communicate verbally will be able to interact with Glass in this way, for sure. Apps and technology only get more sophisticated over time.
Google Glass is not like any technology we have seen before. It is awesome and exciting and revolutionary. But beyond the practicality, functionality and technical ability of the device itself, it is antisocial, invasive and inhuman.
Call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t believe that we were designed to walk around with computers and cameras attached to our heads. I also don’t love the idea of not-knowing whether the person I am talking to is filming me or Googling me. I’m quite positive I am not the only person to feel this way, either.
I am aware that the human implications of Glass are not exclusive to those with ASD – there are plenty of blogs and articles that share my concerns. Whether it is the carer or sibling-instinct in me that is obsessing me with this topic, I am not so sure – but I want to adapt these narratives specifically to those with Autism, so that we can understand what we might be getting ourselves into.
In time, we will most likely create our own set of social rules and norms for when it is and is not OK to wear your Glass. For example, it might be OK to wear Glass in the classroom – I can (quite confidently) assume that it will not be OK to wear it in the cinema, public toilet or swimming pool. For a group who already have difficulty understanding social expectations, these will be a whole new set of rules to teach. Not understanding social rights and wrongs can leave you very vulnerable – same goes for Glass.
Human obsession with our devices has been spoken and written about by a number of people – this is not something new. A lot of us will check our phones many times throughout the day – whether we are in middle of conversation or lying in bed. For those with Autism, though, obsession with an item can be a lot more intense. Jake has been known to fall asleep holding an item of clothing or even cutlery (not a knife, I hasten to add) that he has refused to let go of. Obsession is a difficult struggle to overcome for those with Autism – it can last days, months or even years.
ASD obsession with mobile devices is a discussion that has already happened with tablets, and whilst it is definitely a concern (and reality) again, because of the less intrusive approach of a tablet-device, this can be easier to overcome and the benefits the tablet provides outweigh that risk. Glass is different. The physicality of the device and the way you have to interact with it means that Glass distances you from the rest of the world. This means obsession would be more of a problem than any device before it.
…Carers and professionals
There are articles that are referring to Sension and Glass as a treatment for Autism. The semantic-politics around Autism are well-documented and I have no intention of going down that road. Strictly speaking about the term treatment in terms of Glass – this is a whole new ball game. If Glass is to become a treatment, this changes how many professionals and carers currently work – do speech and language therapists become Glass teachers? Sension is just one app for Glass – you would need to teach how to communicate with it too. Whose responsibility will that be? Maybe we should focus more on integration into already existing therapies rather than treatment.
My issues with Glass are not a total reflection on my attitude towards integrating technology into the lives of those with Autism. As Glass develops and changes, I am hopeful that my problems with it will be solved. As it stands now though, Glass is socially exclusive. That is totally the opposite of everything I have ever wanted for Jake. Let’s tread carefully.