Augmented Reality Is a Therapeutic Game Changer

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Remember speech recognition back in the 1990s? We had DragonDictate and Kurzweil Voice for Windows. Then the Kolvox Suites added an additional layer of functionality. And people kept building on the technology, making it bigger, stronger, and faster until it became what it is today.

It seems that’s where we are now with augmented reality (AR). AR combines real and virtual objects to provide an interactive experience in real time. And it’s a wealth of possibility.

It’s currently being used by Stroll to help people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) improve walking and balance and decrease fall risk. It’s also being used in other settings to help people who’ve had strokes.

AR offers several advantages over traditional therapy. It enables users to interact with real objects in real-world circumstances in a safe environment. It can result in more consistency and improved outcomes. It enhances neural plasticity for faster recovery of motor functions; it is less expensive than traditional therapy; and unlike traditional therapy, treatment data can be collected.

Helping the brain problem-solve in a safe AR environment can improve memory and cognition, in turn improving quality of life and prolonging the functional working capacity of people with PD or cognitive issues.

“It’s a matter of bringing AR to market in a cost-effective package,” says Travis Robinson, Parkinson’s advocate and co-host of the “I’m Not Dead Yet” podcast. “It feeds on itself; people who use the products will have ideas to generate more products for therapeutic as well as compensatory uses.”

The possibilities are endless. Imagine a heads-up display from your cell phone. There could be mic pickups in the glasses. The product could combine text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and eye tracking technology for a truly hands-free experience.

When designing AR for therapeutic uses, “it’s important to make the tasks more difficult than they would be in reality, so when the patient gets to the moment in real life, ‘Oh, there’s something in my way,’ they’ve already done something harder,” says Charles Nudelman, researcher and speech language pathologist.

AR could be used, for example, to help someone find their keys. It’s something we’ve all experienced. This could help individuals improve their memory. It could tie in with Air Tags; text could pop up on the AR display, “Key Signal Here,” and the user would follow the path as instructed by his glasses, kind of like Google Maps. The technology could also tie in to one’s smart home. “You could even design a perimeter system like they have for dog collars—an invisible fence,” says Robinson. “Imagine, you’re walking. A big red line appears on your glasses, ‘Caution, Bob. That’s the street.’”

All the components exist today, and Robinson, who used to run teams of developers for infrastructure products at Fortune 100 companies, states it would take minimal resources to write the API.

“We need to design with, not for people with disabilities, and we need to design for the most extreme context,” says Deana McDonagh, professor of industrial design and director of (dis)Ability Design Studio. That’s not always easy considering young, able-bodied individuals are often doing the designing.

But AR can help with that, too, because it can simulate disabilities to help not only designers but caregivers, educators, and family members actually experience how it feels to have specific medical conditions. This could foster understanding and compassion, and likely also improve the quality of care.

In creating new products, it is critical to identify the target demographic and keep it involved throughout the entire process, not just at the end. So if you’re designing a product for people with PD or traumatic brain injury or other cognitive issues, people with those issues need to be involved from the beginning. And if you’re designing for women or tweens or any other mainstream demographic, women or tweens or name your demographic with disabilities need to be included as well.

When deciding between the commercial or medical spaces, designers should know that commercial is simpler because the product will not need to withstand the rigorous FDA process for certification and clearance, nor will the product have to be recertified if a subsequent modification is made. On the flip side, if it’s not a medical device, the product and associated services will not be eligible for potential insurance reimbursement.

It’s an exciting time for the industry—and for all of us who will benefit from creative implementation of this newer technology. What’s your dream AR product? 

Robin Springer is an attorney and the president of Computer Talk (www.comptalk.com), a consulting firm specializing in implementation of speech recognition technology and services, with a commitment to shifting the paradigm of disability through awareness and education. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or contactus@comptalk.com.

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