Can Virtual Reality Help Autistic Kids?

The Virtual Environment-based Adaptive System Helps Autistic Kids Enhance Social Functioning

According to estimates from CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, about 1 in 68 children in this world is suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that can introduce some significant social problems including difficulties in communicating and interacting with others. Specifically, children with ASD have shown impairment in understanding complex facial emotional expressions of others and are slow to recognize people’s faces. In other words, they can hardly get the sense of context when interacting with people, which might later introduce more severe risks in communication.

Unfortunately, little is known about the diagnosis and even treatment for ASD; currently, there is no cure for ASD but only some evidence which states that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development. These services refer to medical therapy that helps the child talk, walk, and interact with others. However, the real problem that blocks children with ASD to overcome social interaction impairments lies in the lack of access to the therapy. The traditional intervention paradigm, which requires a professional therapist to sit next to the child, is not available to the vast majority of ASD population. There aren’t as many trained therapists capable to assist a lot of children in need of help, and even when they are available, it is burdensome for the most of the households with ASD child to afford excessive intervention costs.

Technology can help children with ASD to overcome social interaction disabilities

There is good news, though. Recent advances in computer and robotic technology are introducing innovative assistive technologies for ASD therapy. Among all emerging technologies, in particular, virtual Reality (VR) is the most leading one since it has its potential to individualize autism therapy to offer useful technology-enabled therapeutic systems. As children suffering ASD manifest varying social deficits from one individual to another, it is exceedingly essential to provide proper help to each of them through personalized therapy; VR-based intervention system that keeps track of the child’s mental state can fulfill this customization need. Moreover, a number of studies indicated that many children with ASD are in favor of the advanced technology. This preference can be further interpreted to assume that the new intervention paradigm for ASD such as VR might be, and should be well adopted by children with ASD.

Multimodal Adaptive Social Interaction in Virtual Environment

To the point, this week’s research review covers the new VR-based intervention system by introducing Multimodal Adaptive Social Interaction in Virtual Environment (MASI-VR) for children with ASD. This study presents design, development and a usability study of MASI-VR platform. It first has aimed to design the multimodal VR-based social interaction platform that integrates eye gaze, EEG signals, and peripheral psychophysiological signals. The research team has proved the usefulness of the designed system, particularly for emotional face processing task. Through this review, we hope you to get the sense of how virtual environment based technological system works as a whole to help improve overall social functioning in autism.

Synthesizing different aspects of a social interaction

The research team has designed the VR system that incorporated various aspects of emotional social interaction. The system, in turn, aims to help children with ASD to learn proper processing of emotional faces.

Fig.1. System architecture of MASI-VR

It mainly consists of three parts: VR task engine and dialog management module; the central supervisory controller; peripheral interfaces that monitor eye gaze, EEG, and peripheral physiological signals to assess the subject’s affective state. When the central controller facilitates the event synchronization between the other two parts, the subject starts to undergo various social task while their physiological information is collected and analyzed in real time. The signals further work as a primary determinant to control the next stage within the virtual environment, letting the whole process to become individualized.

Fig.2. Various emotion and gestural animations

To be more specific, there were total seven characters of teenagers presented in the virtual environment, and they can change their facial expressions of seven emotions — enjoyment, surprise, contempt, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger — in line with the situational context. In the pre-set VR cafeteria environment, each subject wanders around the virtual space and meets one of the characters who wishes to interact with the subject. In this situation, the subject can either choose or not choose to start a conversation with the avatar. If it decides to communicate, different kinds of conversational dialog missions will take place. After each session, the training trial begins for the subject to practice recognizing the character’s emotional state through observing its facial expression. At the end of each dialog, the face of the character will be presented with oval occlusion. The occlusion will gradually disappear following the gaze of the subject to give adaptive gaze feedback. This process encourages children with ASD to look at critical parts in the face that determines one’s emotional state such as areas around eyes and mouth. Therefore, if the subject succeeds in paying enough attention to those parts, the face reveals the emotion and the subject gets to choose what the emotion was.

Fig.3. The VR cafeteria environment for the social task

Effectiveness of MASI-VR in improving eventual social functioning

In order to prove the usability and effectiveness of the gaze-sensitive system, the nearly identical system only without gaze feedback was tested by the control group as well. The performance difference showed that the adaptive system was significantly more helpful to enhance the subject’s engagement to the social task as well as the accuracy of recognizing the character’s facial expression of emotions. In other words, MASI-VR is considerably useful in training core deficit areas of children with ASD. Though the study is still in the preliminary stage, the findings suggest that VR-based social interactive environment can be utilized to help improve the eventual social functioning of those with ASD.

LooxidVR monitors eye gaze and EEG in the virtual environment

Now that the effectiveness of Multimodal Adaptive Social Interaction in Virtual Environment for children with social communication disabilities has been proved, which device should be chosen to further enrich the study to develop the quality of the therapy?

LooxidVR

In the study, several different devices were used to simultaneously monitor each corresponding physiological signal from the subject. However, there exists some inconvenience caused in the process of installing and setting up all of those devices; it would be best if the entire data can be collected and analyzed in a single VR device. Though sounds like a future dream yet to be realized, there is one in this world that enables concurrent measurement of a person’s eye gaze and EEG data in VR environment. LooxidVR, the world first mobile VR headset to provide an interface for both the eyes and the brain, allows robust data acquisition through VR compatible sensor that measures the user’s brain activity and eye movement. Recently winning Best Of Innovation Award at CES 2018, Looxid Labs is ready to provide the integrated solution to many of those who are interested in exploring user’s mind. With LooxidVR, further development of in-person therapy for children with ASD to enhance social functioning would come true.


LooxidVR pre-orders will start on Feb 1st, 2018. For more information, visit our website www.looxidlabs.com and do not miss the pre-order opportunity to enrich your current research and study.

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Reference

  1. Multimodal adaptive social interaction in virtual environment (MASI-VR) for children with Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)| Virtual Reality (VR), 2016 IEEE
  2. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention