Children are our future, and with the amount of technology they interact with today – they are our empowered future.
Generation Alpha, also known as I Generation or children of Millennials, are kids born between 2010 to 2025. They are the most technologically infused demographic who acquire knowledge by touching the screen, immersing in the virtual worlds, talking to Siri and Alexa, and who plan to live on Mars one day. By 2025, generation Alpha will account for two billion of the world’s population and be the wealthiest, most educated, and technologically literate generation in history.
Although these children will have the most technological wisdom as they walk along with the robots and immerse into Disney World from their homes’ comfort, they will have the highest risk of living with a disability. Despite the improvements in healthcare, the rates of different types of disabilities are growing with every single passing year.
While it will take another decade or two for genomics or genetic engineering to cease the Autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders at their roots, technologies based on augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and robotics are already changing every industry today.
Per Statista, by 2023, the number of AR headset shipments will increase from 600 thousand to almost 32 million annually and VR headsets from 7 million to nearly 37 million units per year.
Consumers are more than ever ready to buy AR/VR technology, with an estimated 7 billion dollars would spend worldwide by the end of 2020.
Consumers prefer a headset type of technology because they don’t need to hold or carry anything and follow the instructions without looking down.
Even though there was a decrease in virtual reality in gaming, sports, and movies in the past two years, the rates of AR and VR use are steadily growing in the education and healthcare sectors. It signals to me that the demand for quality educational and assistive technology is only increasing. How can we incorporate VR and AR technology’s growth into the formation of assistive devices for specials needs children?
It turns out, there are a few companies out there that channel their efforts on building AR or VR headsets for Autism.
Brain Power, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of them. Their AR product, Empowered Brain, runs on Google glass and uses multiple applications configured via mobile or desktop devices. For example, Emotion Charades, a gamified app of Empowered Brain, helps a child strengthen his/her emotional literacy by visually prompting a child to tilt his or her head to choose the emoji that matches the partner’s expression. If the child selects the correct emoji, he/she receives points. Face2Face application helps the child to practice focus. Each time the child gets distracted, the program redirects the child back to the conversing partner. Finally, Transition Master provides an immersive 360-degree experience with gamified rewards for exploration, which helps the child get to know the new places before visiting them. Brain Power confirms that their product reduces irritability, hyperactivity, or inattention and improves social communication, engagement, and cognition in a child. The data collected from each 10-minute therapeutic session is stored in the data-analytics portal hosted in the cloud and can be later used to analyze a child’s progress and create custom reports such as a school accepted IEP (Individualized Education Plan).
Another company, Floreotech, uses VR technology and provides immersive and repeatable virtual reality context supervised by the therapists or parents. Floreotech offers various modules such as gestures, imitations, street crossing, classroom, or school cafeteria social skills to provide the child with VR scenarios where he or she can practice appropriate actions or feedback. In my opinion, Floreotech targets children with high functioning Autism who can verbalize their needs but unsure about how to do it “right”. Just like Empowered Brain, Floreo headset collects data and provides progress analytics to the administrators. Both companies work with local schools and parents.
I had a chance to talk to both companies’ representatives, but I did not have an opportunity to test their products; however, it is on my radar. I think both companies deserve a good round of applause for creating assistive technology for our children. Their products may not fit every child, but they can help many of them to improve focus, attention, learn social cues and behaviors expected of them in familiar and unfamiliar surroundings.
Robots are another type of assistive technology that can potentially serve as great transition companions because their communication is simple and not overwhelming to a child with weak social cues’ recognition. Statista results show that robotics is on the rise, with applications in the domestic and medical field ranked second and third in sales value.
Aldebaran Robotics, a French robotics company headquartered in Paris, which was acquired by SoftBank Group in 2015, released its first humanoid robot, Nao, for education, healthcare, and research. NAO is 58cm tall, autonomous, and a fully programmable robot that can walk, talk, listen to you and even recognize your face.
With a cascade of movements and behaviors, human beings can be overwhelming to a child with Autism. Robots have the most patience when it comes to repetition or reassurance. Besides, they are much simpler in their appearance than real-life objects, and they can be customized to meet each child’s social and verbal repertoire. Children with Autism are more likely to communicate with the inanimate, non-human entity; therefore, robots introduce a considerable potential to help these children to enhance their communication skills. All these factors make robots the ideal medium to be used in autism therapy. However, it should be clarified here that the robot’s function is not to replace therapists’ roles but rather to act as an attractive agent or friendly mediator to keep the autistic child engaged and focused during therapy.
Finally, I explored how a sense of touch can help an autistic child overcome his or her sensory problems. For instance, some children seek pressure on their bellies and backs, so they press themselves against the walls; others try to get into tight spaces. Seeking supplementary stimulation, kids can pinch and scratch themselves, squeeze their cheeks, arms, and legs, and continually look for hugs from family members or random people. As such, body brushes, weighted clothing, squishable furniture, or toys have come to market to help them receive a sufficient sensory load. There is a possible solution to enhance or reduce sensory pressure, details of which have appeared in a few recent online articles. Epidermal VR is a skin-interfaced wearable device that consists of a soft skin-like patch that wirelessly connects to a touchscreen interface (smartphone or tablet), so when a user touches the touchscreen, that pattern of touch transmits to the patch. Epidermal VR technology can help individuals in a long-distance relationship connect through the touch; it can also provide prosthetics with sensory feedback and enhance video gaming with a sensory layer.
As the pressure and pattern of touch can be controlled through the touchscreen interface, I envision this technology being used in virtual therapeutic sessions. Getting the attention of or calming a distraught and fussy autistic child through the touch means providing care and relief to a child even when a caregiver or therapist is not physically present.
Thank you for reading.