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BYU Capstone team develops the “impossible” to help therapists working with children diagnosed with autism

The team of Mechanical and Electrical and Computer Engineering students created a pair of glasses that displays in-lens animations to help with attentiveness and eye contact development.

Children diagnosed with autism often have difficulty making eye contact, according to the National Autism Association. Research has shown that social communicative gestures, such as eye contact and pointing, are building blocks to language development (Webb, Jones, Kelly, & Dawson, 2014). The solution, developed by a BYU Capstone team composed of six engineering students and their sponsor, Heidi Kershaw, is a pair of glasses, worn by a therapist, that fade animations in and out on the lenses, potentially increasing the engagement and comfort of the child trying to develop a greater ability for making eye contact.

Kershaw has a child with autism. The idea for the glasses came to her during a therapy session with her son. Kershaw shared that her son needed to continue working on therapy exercises, but was entranced by Mickey Mouse on the TV. “I remember telling the therapist, if I could just have a pair of glasses that streamed content into the lens, I would wear them so that I could finally see my boy’s eyes,” said Kershaw. 

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At full opacity the therapist's eyes are hidden, but they can still see the child.
Photo by Rebekah Baker

Kershaw reached out to engineering firms around the world and received similar responses from all of them: the technology was impossible and would cost $1M for development without any guaranteed outcome or results. Somewhat serendipitously, Kershaw was connected with BYU Capstone through a friend, and began working with the team of three BYU Mechanical Engineering students and three BYU Electrical and Computer Engineering students. In a matter of weeks, the team had developed two possible prototypes.

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In addition to two sheets of teleprompter glass and LCD screens, the product also utilizes a Raspberry Pi controller.

“From the outset, we all could feel the importance and potential life changing impact these glasses will hopefully have on the lives of children with autism and their families,” said Matt Simmons, Capstone team member. “We are all so grateful to have had the opportunity to make this idea become a reality. Our hope is that therapists who work with children with autism will use these glasses to create that positive experience and help these wonderful children continue to develop.”

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The product is designed to fit comfortably like a normal pair of glasses, with a USBC cable following the left temple to the controller.

The chosen design utilizes two LCD screens, two small sheets of teleprompter glass and a speaker. The glasses are connected to a control box, which allows for opacity control of the animation by the user. With low opacity, the therapist's eyes will be visible to the child, allowing for an opportunity to engage in eye contact after already being engaged in an animation at high opacity. 

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The opacity control feature allows for the therapist's eyes to be clearly visible at zero percent opacity.

The team also explored the idea of using mini transparent OLED screens, as they are lightweight and look more like normal glasses, however OLED screens would restrict the animations to low resolution and monochromatic colors, and could blind the user at full opacity. The team suggests that as technology improves, OLED screens could become a viable option. 

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Different animations can be uploaded to the Raspberry Pi controller, allowing variation in what animations are displayed to the child.
Photo by Rebekah Baker

Kershaw believes this product is one more tool doctors and communities around the world can use to further understand the needs of children with autism.

“Not only do I see the need of these kids who want to connect but don’t know how, but the need of parents who want to connect with their child...they’re desperate for it,” said Kershaw. As the current SVP of Operations at the Entertainment Industry Foundation in Los Angeles, and the former president of a non-profit that supports arts education, Kershaw will use her business background and know-how to further this project.

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The final product features a sleek design with 3D printed casing to improve durability and cover all electrical components.

Kershaw plans to refine the design and move forward with mass manufacturing in hopes of making this product available to front-line therapists and parents of children with autism. Eager to help others with similar struggles, Kershaw says, “I’m hungry to help the world see how much potential is in every single autistic child, every single autistic adult. These are phenomenal people. They want to connect with others, and they don’t have the inherent tools to know how to do that.”

While children diagnosed with autism should never be forced to make eye contact, which could cause unnecessary stress or discomfort, some therapists are able to successfully increase attentiveness by teaching children to focus on eye contact. These glasses would prove a helpful tool for therapists, parents, and children who believe eye contact skills would improve their overall wellbeing.