Students Raise a Google Glass to Good Health

December 11, 2013

This semester, a score of stu­dents seized upon on a rare oppor­tu­nity: to let their minds wander into uncharted ter­ri­tory and develop per­sonal health appli­ca­tions that leverage the unique capa­bil­i­ties of Google Glass, the wear­able com­puter with on optical head-​​mounted display.

Stephen Intille and Rupal Patel, asso­ciate pro­fes­sors in the Northeastern’s per­sonal health infor­matics pro­gram who each have joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, co-​​taught the class—among the first of its kind in the U.S. The class—“Health Inno­va­tion with Google Glass”—com­prised under­grad­uate, master’s, and doc­toral stu­dents across four col­leges, all of whom worked together to solve a spe­cific health­care need with the new technology.

Regina Ranstrom, CIS’14, an under­grad whose inter­ests include health sci­ences and mobile tech­nology devel­op­ment, said the class allowed her to apply this knowl­edge to an truly inno­v­a­tive project, while also honing her own skills. “Google Glass is one of the newest mobile devices out there,” said Ranstrom, who was excited to get a closer, hands-​​on look throughout the semester.

The lens-​​free “glasses” include a min­i­malist frame, one side of which acts as a touch pad to con­trol the device. A small glass cube on the user’s right side dis­plays a tiny screen in his or her field of vision that can be used to either cap­ture or project images. The device can also be con­trolled using audi­tory cues, which many of the groups used to their advantage.

Intille and Patel said that while only a handful of Google Glass apps are ded­i­cated to per­sonal health, the technology’s hands-​​free nature is fer­tile ground for devel­opers inter­ested in exploring. “One of the rea­sons I came to North­eastern was so I could teach classes like this,” said Intille, who joined the fac­ulty in 2010.

At the start of the semester, the stu­dents brain­stormed dozens of app ideas and ulti­mately nar­rowed them down to just five. Over the next three months, groups of four or five stu­dents each worked to develop a single pro­to­type, reg­u­larly pre­senting to their class­mates along the way.

Oliver Wilder-​​Smith, PhD’18, who is pur­suing a doc­torate in per­sonal health infor­matics, said that this aspect of the class proved to be invalu­able. “When you are pre­senting to fellow stu­dents who work in so many dif­ferent fields it forces you to really hone in on com­mu­ni­cating your ideas effec­tively and pro­vide a clear evidence-​​based ratio­nale for why your project would have a health impact,” he explained.

The selected app projects spanned a broad range of health­care needs. One focused on lone­li­ness older adults may face, while another sought to stream­line hos­pi­tals’ use of elec­tronic check­lists. Two others addressed the unique needs of people with autism, while the fifth helped people with speech lan­guage dis­or­ders speak more clearly.

“It was great to see stu­dents from dif­ferent pro­grams and back­grounds lever­aging the unique fea­tures of Glass to address a variety of health and well-​​being issues,” said Patel, who directs the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Analysis, and Design Lab­o­ra­tory.

Pre­senting a pos­i­tive vision of what can be done is impor­tant,” said Intille, who noted that many people have labeled the technology’s use of a point-​​of-​​view-​​camera as an inva­sion of pri­vacy. “There are a lot of things that can be done with this tech­nology that are transformative.”

As part of Northeastern’s unique PHI pro­gram, Patel and Intille will offer a follow up course this spring in which stu­dents will be able to fur­ther develop and eval­uate some of their apps.