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Beyond a Gadget: Google Glass is a Boon to Individuals with Disabilities
October 23, 2013
Source: USA Today
Researchers are working hard to harness the hands-free nature of Google Glass to improve the lives of those with compromised mobility, vision and hearing.
Autumn in Northern California can bring out the shutterbug in anyone. Leaves morph from green to gold, seals and otters dot the blue Pacific. Tammie Lou Van Sant loves to head out on such photo safaris, sometimes posting dozens of shots a day to social media sites.
No big deal — unless you consider that Van Sant, 52, is paralyzed from the chest down, possesses no digital dexterity and has been waiting nearly two decades since breaking her neck in a car accident to do something seemingly as simple as snapping a picture.
"I think I've taken a photo of everything in Santa Cruz," says Van Sant, her grin stretching ear to ear. "It is just awesome."
The "it" in question is Glass, Google's wearable computer that last summer found its way onto the faces of about 8,000 Glass Explorers, people who, like Van Sant, wrote the search engine juggernaut with a compelling reason why they should be among the first in the world to acquire the $1,500 invention.
Although a number of scientists have been toiling in obscurity since the 1970s on glasses that harness computing power, Google was first out of the commercial gate with a lightweight, voice-controlled device that features a small square prism just off the right eye and a touch-sensitive temple. Through voice and touch, Glass can shoot pictures and video, make and receive calls and texts, and access the Web.
Glass has an expected on-sale date sometime in 2014. As a product still in its infancy, it recalls the iPhone's early days as a smartphone with promise and woefully few apps. But while Glass' full potential will be determined down the road, it already has distinguished itself as a potentially life-changing tool for [people with disabilities}.
Researchers in a range of disciplines are looking into ways to leverage Glass' inherent advantage over the smartphone — its hands-free nature — to help those who navigate life with compromised mobility, vision and hearing. There's even work being done to assist those with autism, using facial recognition software to help identify the emotions of others.
Perhaps not since the invention of text-to-voice and other speech-recognition software has a tech invention had such potential to help [people with disabilities].
"Glass will be revolutionary for the disabled," says Rosalind Picard, founder of the Affective Computing Research Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, whose focus is autism and communication technology.
"With facial analytics, it's possible to, with the subject's approval, have Glass scan a face and put up a green light if the person is intrigued, yellow if they're confused or red if they're bored," she says. Then, chuckling, she adds, "It could even whisper at you during that date, 'Hey, she's losing interest.'"
Picard says speech recognition is getting so good that a deaf person soon could see a real-time transcript of what a friend is saying in Glass' prism. A person with limited vision could take walking directions from Glass through its bone-conducting speaker housed in the right temple.
"One day soon, we'll look at regular glasses the way we now look at old phones," she says. "It will change things so much."
What pleases Mark Perriello is that, thanks to the feedback-intensive Explorers program, Glass is being developed with input from [people with disabilities].
"All too often, technologies are created and then people ask, 'OK, what if people with disabilities need to use it?'" says the CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group founded in the wake of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
"From taking a picture with ease to helping those with low vision redefine their world," Perriello says, "this has the possibility to level the playing field."
A GLASS ACT
Wearable computers have always been about increased accessibility, says Thad Starner, who has been toting around computerized glasses of his own design since 1993. In 1998, he demonstrated his creations to a pair of Stanford University students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google's co-founders contacted Starner three years ago and made him Glass' lead designer.
"I could cite academic papers for you, but Larry says it best, 'With Glass, we are reducing the time between intention and action,' " Starner says. "Glass keeps you in the flow of what you're doing, and for people with disabilities, that's even more vital. Suddenly someone isolated at home is more fluent with (text) messages than their friends with a mobile phone. It really can change lives."
For many scientists, the thrill is in trying to turn sci-fi dreams into today's reality. But for some, the quest is personal.
Catalin Voss has a cousin with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism; that has led the precocious German-born Stanford University sophomore to found Sension, a company whose missions include developing Glass software that turns the expressions of others into on-screen keywords like "happy" and "angry."
"Emotional recognition (software) is still in its early days, at about the state of a 3-year-old, but I still felt passionate about trying to do something meaningful," says Voss, whose software maps 78 points on the face. "From my personal experience, I know that the issues (for my cousin) are recognizing an expression, and then smiling back. Glass is good for the first, and can help with the second."
As a youngster, Kim Xu used to attend Girl Scout meetings at the home of a girl whose brother was deaf. Fast-forward to last year, when the Ph.D. candidate in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech co-created SMARTSign, an app that pushes out short video tutorials on American Sign Language.
"For my Ph.D., we studied how six families with deaf children used the app," which is also available for Android phones, says Xu, who now works for tech consulting firm Tin Man Labs in Huntsville, Alabama.
"Seeing them learn at a faster pace was so satisfying. But it was clear that by using (the app with) Glass, people were able to learn at a more constant pace," she says. "With a phone spending so much time in your pocket, you don't really have it out in front of you as much as you think."
Shaun Kane can appreciate the merits of Glass perhaps a bit better than most researchers. His own physical disability limits him to the use of one arm while he works on ways to help [those who are] visually impaired through technology.
"One of the most basic challenges for many disabled folks is just getting around every day carrying stuff, getting things out of pockets and things like that," says Kane, assistant professor in the department of information systems at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. "If I have something in one hand, that's it for me."
Kane has been using Glass daily since August, mostly to snap photos on the go. But he's bullish on the device's potential to vastly improve quality of life for the blind. "Having something on your head that is pointing naturally in the direction you are looking is invaluable," he says.
Jeff Bigham, who conducts research in the same area, agrees. "Imagine this," he says, excitedly. "A blind person with Glass walks by a store and Glass recognizes it and announces what it is. Maybe that person didn't notice that it changed from a restaurant to a dry cleaner, but now he knows. These are things the rest of us take for granted, but for a blind person, it's truly powerful."
Bigham, an assistant professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has developed software that in fact can do such things. A video he posted on YouTube shows a blind man wearing glasses walking through a room filled with equipment, and each time a piece comes into Glass' view it describes the apparatus to the wearer.
Glass' other big score comes in a simpler form. Bigham's VizWiz is a smartphone-based project that has seen 5,000 blind users ask more than 70,000 visual questions ranging from "What's this spot on my baby's head?" to "Do I look nice?" — questions and photos that are then sent out to the Web and answered in less than a minute by live respondents working through Amazon Mechanical Turk.
Where smartphone-based VizWiz users have to contend with the inherent hassle of "using a handheld device while blind, Glass offers the chance to provide continuous, hands-free visual assistance," Bigham says.
When Larry Kaplan wrote in to Google's #ifihadglass contest, he wasn't looking to use them himself. Instead, Kaplan, who sells discounted sneakers online, wanted to make Glass available to the ALS patients he has befriended as a local volunteer over the past 15 years.
"When you have ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which cripples motor functions) you often don't feel like a part of full society, and I thought maybe wearing Glass could help," says Kaplan of West Chester, Pennsylvania. "It's been amazing. Some patients have no use of their hands, and others are losing their vocal abilities. But they talk to Glass and it understands them."
One of the beneficiaries of Kaplan's gesture is Gary Beech, a retired IRS tax examiner from Philadelphia. "It's very comforting to know that people in my position can still experience some things they might not be able to in life," Beech writes in an e-mail. "Glass can be worn by somebody outside watching a soccer game, and I can watch it all happen at home on a computer. Truly amazing."
STILL A WAYS TO GO
One [Glass Explorer who is blind] says the potential for greatness lies just beyond the product's initial limitations.
"I'm a little frustrated with (Glass), not because it's something I can't use, but because with trivial modifications I would use it all the time," says Sina Bahram, founder of disability-focused Prime Access Consulting in Cary, North Carolina, and a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at North Carolina State University. "It's not pie in the sky. For me, Glass could be an amazing conduit to the outside world."
Among his complaints are a volume control that is "embedded too far deep in the menu," a hypersensitive temple touch pad and a "ban on facial recognition (out of privacy concerns) that really hurts those of us who are blind."
Bahram is at least hoping for object recognition to become a reality. "Think about what it's like for me to hail a cab," he says. "Now, picture me wearing a device that sees a cab heading my way, and alerts me to it. That's a paradigm shift."
For Columbia University law school student Alex Blaszczuk, Glass didn't need to deliver a seismic boost but rather just lift her occasionally sagging spirits.
Photo Caption: Alexandra Blaszczuk, 26, of Chicago, became paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident in 2011.
Two years ago, she was on the verge of graduating with her law degree when an oncoming car hit hers while she was traveling in Vermont, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. With great effort, she has returned to Columbia, where she uses Glass to help her research and communicate with friends and social networking circles.
"My life now is about learning to accept that some things are not available to me," says Blaszczuk, 26, a Chicago native who is fluent in Polish and focusing on international transactional law. "But when I took my first picture with Glass, I smiled and thought, 'That's one less thing I have to be OK with not being able to do.'"
She says an eventual improvement in voice-command technology should make using a device such as Glass even more beneficial, cutting valuable and frustrating time off chores that the non-disabled take for granted, whether answering an e-mail or responding to a text message.
But in the end, the biggest gift Glass gives her is that of feeling normal.
"People with disabilities often are seen either as tragedies or heroes," she says. "But when I'm using Glass, I'm just like anyone else. I can post a stupid cat picture or a shot from a tour of Brooklyn that I took. That kind of self-expression means I'm not limited to being a stereotype."
Santa Cruz's Van Sant is all about self-expression this time of year. Her modest home that she shares with her mother is overrun with Halloween decorations, including three fake graves on her front lawn and a skeleton that writhes in electrocuted pain as you make your way up her wheelchair ramp.
Inside, there's more of the same festive ghoulishness, along with an overly friendly Labrador service dog named Robby who can open doors and windows but is far more interested in being caressed.
Van Sant takes Glass off only to sleep, preferring to have her device handy for that unexpected amazing-pets video or perhaps a breathtaking sunset. The device may seem like a wacky cyborg-like gadget to many on this planet, but for this woman, it has brought a sense of joy that was long banished after a truck hydroplaned, flipped and crashed into her car on a rural highway south of here.
"I'm out more doing stuff since I got Glass, interacting with people and the world," she says. "Sure, sometimes people see me talking to Glass and assume I'm weird. But most times they come up and go, 'Oh, I've heard of those, can I see them?' "
Robby suddenly bounds out of his dog bed over to a visitor with puppy energy; Van Sant apologizes and asks the dog to lie down.
"I waited almost 20 years to be able to take a picture," she says softly, shaking her head in quiet amazement. "I simply can't imagine anything more useful to me."
Robby stands up again. Van Sant sighs.
"Well, other than an invention that would make my dog mind me," she says, laughing. Then, smiling at a contrite Robby, she commands: "Glass … take a picture."
Note: The original online article includes a video without captions (3:18 min.).
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