125 Stanford Stories

NO. 66

Scaling autism’s walls: Catalin Voss

What the Autism Glass user sees. For users who don't yet read, the tool renders facial expression as a color or emoticon.
Autism Glass Project
catalin portrait
Catalin Voss, ’16, MS ’16, built a tool on Google Glass that recognizes facial expressions, translates them for the wearer and sends data to a phone app for review.
Photo courtesy Catalin Voss

Stanford student invention helps users read emotional cues

On the one side, I’m a nerd at heart and love building stuff. On the other side, I thrive from seeing other people succeed. If I can combine those two, I’m happy.

— Catalin Voss

More than 70 million children worldwide are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, a condition that hinders reading facial expressions or making eye contact and thus makes forming social bonds extremely difficult. Behavioral therapy can help people with autism learn cues that others grasp easily, but many families can’t get as many sessions as they would like, when and where they would like them. Stanford student Catalin Voss’s Autism Glass aims to give users a learning aid for wherever they go.

Voss, ’16, MS ’16, developed a tool built on Google Glass that reads facial expressions, interprets them in real time for the wearer and transmits data to a parent or health care worker. Autism Glass combines artificial intelligence and gaze tracking to help people with autism interpret emotional cues. It also helps parents and caregivers track their progress.

A pilot study in the Stanford University School of Medicine found that children who wore Autism Glass increased their eye contact with others, a vital step in social interactions. A larger clinical study is under way in the Wall Lab in the school’s Department of Pediatrics. Principal investigator Dennis Wall is an associate professor of pediatrics and of biomedical data science.

For his invention, Voss, who majored in computer science, was awarded the David M. Kennedy Prize for the best senior honors thesis in engineering and applied sciences, written under the direction of Professor Emeritus Terry Winograd. Voss also received the national Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for technology-based health care inventions.

“I’m lucky to get to work on projects and problems I care about, without being too tied to a salary just yet,” Voss said.

“My paycheck comes in the form of emails from parents that describe in vivid detail how we changed their lives, how their children make more eye contact, maintain conversation longer and engage in more social interactions.”

It’s a long way from Voss’s childhood near Heidelberg, Germany, when his goal was merely “to shake hands with someone who had ‘Stanford’ on their resume.”

Since his early teens, Voss has been an inspiring mobile-app developer. When he was 14, his instructional podcast on iPhone programming became the No. 1 iTunes download in Germany. At 15, he was developing mobile payment apps for Sunnyvale’s PayNearMe.

Yet he longed for a community of like minds, a community that was both entrepreneurial and smart. Stanford fit the bill. As a freshman, Voss became an Innovator in Residence at StartX, Stanford’s student startup accelerator. Meeting “people who are energetic and have that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said at the time, “leaves me hoping to create something on my own.”

He began working on emotion recognition and face tracking, with an eye toward using it to make mobile content more interactive. During his freshman year, he founded the computer vision startup Sension around this idea and began working with Stanford postdoctoral scholar Nick Haber, who now co-leads the Autism Glass Project with Voss at Stanford. GAIA System Solutions, a Toyota company, acquired Sension and its technology in 2015 to develop products in the automotive and health care space. Autism Glass began as a Sension side project.

“We realized we were developing lightweight face-tracking technology that could work on a low-power Android phone, so we ported it to Google Glass,” Voss said. “The idea came to mind then.”

Voss has a cousin with autism, he said, “so I had some background on the challenges that kids with autism face.” Working with Dennis Wall at the School of Medicine convinced Voss of a need for mobile, affordable and scalable therapeutic aids.

“I began to realize how big the bottleneck for autism therapy really is,” Voss said. “The number of behavioral therapists that can provide care to these kids is far outstripped by the number of children in need.” Moreover, he said, families can easily exhaust their covered benefits for the therapy.

In summer 2016, the Autism Glass Project is working to make a case for clinical reimbursement for the device. In the Wall Lab study, 100 children and their families will use Autism Glass at home for four months.

Voss hopes eventually to augment his software to recognize subtle conversational expressions and give more complex social cues.

“On the one side, I’m a nerd at heart and love building stuff,” he said. “On the other side, I thrive from seeing other people succeed.

“If I can combine those two, I’m happy.”