Students raise a Google Glass to good health

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.