Google Glass Put to Work to Help Parkinson's Patients

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2014-04-10

Google Glass Put to Work to Help Parkinson's Patients

Google Glass is being used by patients with Parkinson's disease in early trial experiments aimed at finding new ways to help people affected by this debilitating disease. The work, which is being conducted at Newcastle University in England, is showing early promise by helping patients remember to take their medications and giving users more confidence as they fight the disease.

For Parkinson's patients, the eyewear-mounted Glass devices are so far showing to be easier to use than smartphones to stay in touch with family members and to get through their daily lives, Roisin McNaney (pictured), a Ph.D. student at the university's Digital Interaction Group in the School of Computing Science, told eWEEK in a telephone interview.

"We know from the specific patient symptoms related to Parkinson's that smartphones can be a hindrance" for easy communications with others, said McNaney. Hand tremors and unmovable limbs can be traits of the disease, which can make it hard for patients to operate the often small controls and buttons on today's smartphones, she said.

Google Glass, however, doesn't have those drawbacks due to their voice activation, head-tilt features, easy gesture controls and hands-free capabilities, said McNaney. "With the different gestures used in Glass, we thought this could be useful."

The university was able to acquire three Glass devices from Google in August 2013 after successfully entering a research competition, according to Dr. John Vines, a senior research associate with the university's Digital Interaction Group in the School of Computing Science. The first small trial happened immediately upon receiving the units, but it was quickly expanded to 20 patients in another test project that is still ongoing, said Vines.

Because the Digital Interaction Group conducts research to find ways in which technologies can remove the stigmatization that people with Parkinson's or other diseases can feel in society, Google Glass was a perfect fit for the experiments, said Vines.

"They have a huge array of different types of sensors, a forward-facing camera, a rudimentary eye tracker, accelerometers and a gyroscope," said Vines, all of which can help Parkinson's patients share what they are experiencing and seeing with others at any given moment. "These are all useful things."

The patients who have been participating in the latest Glass trials are receiving the devices for about a week and then are meeting with the researchers and their team for collaborative design sessions where the patients give feedback and ideas about other features that could help them.

"Apps can then be developed to address those needs," then given to the patients for later follow-up, said Vines.

Google Glass Put to Work to Help Parkinson's Patients

Two Parkinson's patients who are participating in the latest study shared their personal experiences with Glass in statements to the university.

Ken Booth, 56, of County Durham in England, was first diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991. He underwent a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation last year in a bid to relieve some of the side effects of the condition, according to the university. The surgery helped him control the symptoms of the disease after medications lost their effectiveness.

Soon after, he began trying Glass, and their helpfulness cannot be overstated, he told the university. "They're just fantastic. The potential for someone with Parkinson's is endless. For me the biggest benefit was confidence. When you freeze your legs stop working but your body carries on moving forward and it's easy to fall."

That becomes less worrisome when wearing Glass, he said. "Because Glass is connected to the Internet you can link it to computers and mobile phones. So if you're alone, you just have to look through the Glass and [caregivers], friends or relatives will be able to see exactly where you are and come and get you. Or you just tell it to call someone and it rings them."

His girlfriend, Lynn Tearse, 46, also has Parkinson's and is also a fan of using Glass in the Newcastle University experiments. Tearse, a retired teacher, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2008.

"People would probably say you can do all these things on a smartphone but actually, with Parkinson's, negotiating a touch screen is really difficult," Tearse said. "It's not just the tremor. During a 'down time' when the medication is starting to wear off and you're waiting for the next lot to kick in, it can be like trying to do everything wearing a pair of boxing gloves. Your movements are very slow and your body won't do what you want it to."

That's where Glass can be helpful to help unlock the brain when it "freezes," she said. "No one really understands why it happens, but it happens when the flat surface in front of you breaks up or the space in front of you narrows such as a doorway. Revolving doors are particularly bad. Your legs gradually freeze up and the difficulty is getting started again. The brain seems to need a point beyond the blockage to fix on and people use different things—Ken will kick the end of his walking stick out in front of him but many people use laser pens to create a virtual line beyond the barrier. This is where Glass could really make a difference."

Glass units are also being used to give medication reminders to patients. "The drugs don't cure Parkinson's, they control it so it's really important to take the medication on time," said Booth. "I was taking two or three different drugs every two hours, different combinations at different times of the day; some with water, some with food, the instructions are endless. Having a reminder that is literally in your face wherever you are and whatever you are doing would really help."

Google Glass Put to Work to Help Parkinson's Patients

McNaney told eWEEK that because Glass is a new technology and because Parkinson's patients are usually older, researchers expected to get negative feedback from them about using the newfangled devices. Instead, she said, rather than being intimidated by Glass, the patients have been very positive about using the devices.

"We were learning as well," she said. "I think that they really could see quite a lot of potential for people with Parkinson's [by using Glass]. One thing you find when you work with people like this is that they are really the experts in this disease. So the next stage is to work with them to see what other apps and patient needs can be filled. It's really through working with the people with Parkinson's that we're going to be able to see the potential in doing that."

Asked about the work being done with Glass at the school, a Google spokesman told eWEEK in an email reply, "Newcastle University is an excellent example of how people and institutions are thinking creatively about how to unlock the potential of wearables like Glass. We're excited about their work and look forward to seeing it develop in the months and years ahead."

Other medical patients have also been experimenting with Glass in separate experiments. In August 2013, eWEEK reported on a young woman in the United States, Alex Blaszczuk, who was in a severe car crash in 2011 that left her a quadriplegic. Blaszczuk has been using Google Glass to take photos, send messages to friends and more. She was selected by Google to participate in the company's Google Glass Explorer Program, which allowed prospective users to submit ideas for why they should be chosen to buy and test out one of the first Glass devices. Blaszczuk's entry was selected from the thousands of submissions to the #ifihadglass competition.

Google Glass has been a topic of conversation among techies since news of it first arrived in 2012. The first Google Glass units began shipping in April 2013 to developers who signed up at the June 2012 Google I/O conference to buy an early set for $1,500 for testing and development, where it was the hit of the conference. Google also then began shipping Glass units to lucky users who were selected in the #ifihadglass contest for the opportunity to buy their own early versions of Glass.

In February 2013, Google expanded its nascent test project for its Glass eyewear-mounted computer by inviting interested applicants to submit proposals for a chance to buy an early model and become part of its continuing development. In March, Google also began notifying a pool of applicants who were selected to purchase the first 8,000 sets of Google Glass when they become available for real-world use and testing later this year by consumers. Those selected applicants have been receiving their units in waves.

Each Google Glass device includes adjustable nose pads and a high-resolution display that Google said is the equivalent of a 25-inch high-definition screen from 8 feet away. The glasses also feature a built-in camera that takes 5-megapixel photos and video at 720p. Audio is delivered to wearers through their bones, using bone-conduction transducers.

Google Glass isn't yet ready for the general public, but sales of the devices are expected to begin sometime later in 2014.

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