Massachusetts startup develops iOS app for autism

Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby

Mobile medical apps are quickly gaining ground as viable therapeutic tools, and a Massachusetts startup is using the technology to create an iOS app that helps children with autism read emotions.

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Affectiva is developing three mobile apps targeted toward individuals with autism, one of which is designed specifically for a younger audience. The first app is a game that challenges children to match a face to the emotion it is projecting, while another app allows individuals to submit face pictures, or "selfies," to get a readout on the mood of the person in the photo. A third program lets the user create music with facial expressions, CEO Rana el Kaliouby told MIT Technology Review.

"Autistic kids have trouble reading and understanding social and emotional cues," Kaliouby said (as quoted by MIT Technology Review). "Just as people with hearing problems benefit from a hearing aid, people with social and emotional problems can benefit from systems that help them understand emotions."

Affectiva's Affdex software analyzes images of faces to detect features such as smiles, frowns, and smirks, and the company currently uses the technology to help marketers understand consumer responses to brands and advertising. After three years of analyzing faces on webcams, Affectiva has compiled more than a billion facial expressions, according to MIT Technology Review. Last year the company released the software to app writers for iOS, and it plans to roll out the completed apps in the near future.

However, the company could face a few bumps in its path toward regulatory approval for its mobile technology. In March, a bipartisan group of senators issued a note to the FDA requesting that the agency clarify its oversight of mobile medical apps. The letter followed the FDA's release of final rules for developing mobile medical apps, as the agency said in September that it would give stricter oversight to apps that turned a smartphone/tablet into a de facto medical device.

Affectiva is not the only research outfit developing mobile apps for behavioral disorders. In May, a University of Michigan research team unveiled a smartphone app that runs on an Android operating system and uses a voice analysis algorithm to monitor moods in patients with bipolar disorder. The scientists won backing from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and plan on continuing their work in a 60-patient U.S. study.

- read the MIT Technology Review story

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