Autism, Augmented Reality and the Frontiers of Technology Innovation

Bill Ash, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)Kathryn Bennett, IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)


One of the great, wild frontiers of technology today is augmented reality, and developers in a huge range of industries—automotive/aerospace, banking, design and architecture, defense, entertainment/gaming, navigation, the public sector, publishing, real estate, retail shopping, tourism and urban planning, among them—hope to tame it to the benefit of their users.

But perhaps nowhere is augmented reality’s potential more compelling than in medical research and healthcare. Certainly, the innovative technology’s possibilities have the interest of the autism community.

In augmented reality—the term is oftentimes abbreviated to “AR”—digital content is synchronized with and superimposed on a person’s physical environment. Text or graphics might dynamically appear in a user’s field of view, or audio signals might automatically sound as the person moves through the physical world. In time, augmented reality might deliver content that appeals to the gamut of human senses, both detecting and enhancing sight, hearing, taste, smell and/or touch, depending on the application. The technology’s potential usefulness is so obviously great that its developers wonder if augmented reality might one day permeate every-day life.

In autism research, scientists are exploring how augmented reality could be harnessed for their particular uses. Might there be looming in the future of this nascent, mind-blowing technology a new, break-through capability for helping enhance the ability of autistic people to communicate and socialize? Researchers are looking at questions such as whether handheld devices could adapt augmented reality to help children learn to better interact and engage with others. Could augmented reality be used to help autistic people more calmly interpret information about their environment so as to better integrate with the world around them?

The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) is working to ensure that augmented reality reaches its full potential and to support the industry’s smooth growth by facilitating global collaboration among varied stakeholders in the technology space. IEEE is helping foster advancement in the quickly evolving space by:

  • Engaging industry participants in dialog about lessons learned and existing or potential obstacles
  • Developing training and certification programs around the technology
  • Encouraging the use of standards (there are already dozens of IEEE standards or standards in development with relevance for augmented reality), open interfaces and sound engineering practices

Augmented reality is just one of the technology areas where development might yield valuable new tools for autism therapy.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is emerging as another potential technology in this space. Research around the question is in its early stages, but could neurofeedback be utilized in treating some of the symptoms of autism? The IEEE SA provided a development forum for EEG technology, as well. For example, IEEE 2010™ “Recommended Practice for Neurofeedback Systems”, which was published in 2012, describes EEG biofeedback instruments and software to optimize the quality and availability of information available to device users.

Sensors embedded in homes, toys or even on or in a person comprise another technology area that might one day, too, play a larger role in autism care. How could researchers use data such as heart rate or measurements of hugs and squeezes to inform diagnosis or treatment? Here again, the IEEE SA is deeply involved in the innovative technology space. The IEEE 11073™ standards, for example, are designed to support communications from various personal health devices.

Where might technology and standards development in augmented reality, EEG, sensory capabilities for monitoring and other burgeoning areas of technology ultimately lead autism researchers over the next decades? We do not know. That is the nature of true innovation. What we do know, however, is that, along the way, the IEEE SA will provide the forum for the vanguard of the technology, research and healthcare communities to come together, share expertise, define the path forward and advance technology for the benefit of humanity.

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