Seeing the future: Google Glass and OCT research

ECE News

Eliot Sill, Engineering at Illinois

Story Highlights

  • Professor Stephen Boppart and bioengineering graduate student Guillermo Monroy plan to use Google Glass for optical coherence tomography (OCT).
  • OCT is similar to ultrasound, but it uses light, instead of sound, to accrue data. Physicians can use OCT imaging to administer ear and eye examinations.
  • With its see-through display, Google Glass could provide an interactive monitor for OCT examinations.

Most research work students do at Illinois takes place here on campus. Some of the work they put in, however, happens by an abandoned warehouse on a dock of the San Francisco Bay. That's where bioengineering graduate student Guillermo Monroy traveled to pick up his new Google Glass, which he will put to use for the research he’s doing on campus.


Guillermo Monroy wearing Google Glass
Guillermo Monroy wearing Google Glass
Monroy, who is working with ECE Professor Stephen Allen Boppart, won the opportunity to purchase the glasses through a contest held by Google called “If I Had Glass.” 


Google is crowdsourcing the application design process by selecting 8,000 applicants from the If I Had Glass contest to be “Glass Explorers” and program applications for the device. Entrants were to submit a 50-word application denoted by the hashtag #ifihadglass to Google via the Internet superpower's own social networking site, Google +. The application prompt was simple: What would you do if given the opportunity to use and program an application for Google Glass?


Monroy thought of his research project. Led by Boppart, the Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, the project focuses on Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) imaging, a developing technology similar to ultrasound, only it uses light, instead of sound, to accrue data that it can turn into an image. Physicians could use OCT imaging alongside an otoscope or ophthalmoscope to administer ear and eye examinations of higher quality.


The images – unlike those of an otoscope, which are seen through the device’s lens – need to be displayed on a monitor. One current model has the imaging set up on a computer monitor, and another requires mounting the monitor on the handheld device itself. Monroy thinks Google Glass can be that monitor, which would allow for physicians to stay as focused on the patient as possible.


“Our first version was to have the display on the back of the device,” Boppart said. “I still think that's a viable way, but I think the next step beyond that is when people and the physician will be constantly needing to call up information, so having the voice commands to call up charts, call up data, show this, show that, and have that even as the physician is examining the patient. I think that's going to be the next generation.”


Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart
Monroy had Boppart's full support in implementing Glass into the research project because the application could help bring OCT scanning to clinics faster and in a more effective capacity. Boppart has been working with OCT for about 20 years, and said it has become the “gold standard” for eye care.


OCT imaging also has use in treating otitis media, commonly known as ear infections, and Boppart’s team would like to see this become the gold standard for ear treatment as well. Chronic otitis media is characterized by the presence of a biofilm on the tympanic membrane and in the middle ear. An otoscope would not be able to detect this biofilm, whereas an OCT scan could. While otoscopy can identify ears that are currently dealing with infection, OCT scanning can identify an ear that is becoming infected, or has been previously infected and is prone to do so again.


“Ear infections are very common in children, and we don't treat them appropriately with antibiotics or surgery because we don't understand them well enough,” Boppart said. “We haven't characterized the types of ear infections, and how are they responding to antibiotics, so this has led to antibiotic resistance because physicians just give antibiotics to anybody with an ear infection.”


Monroy says designing the application will take between two and six months before the team can use it, and that he can paraphrase coding already used in Google Hangouts, currently a feature of Glass, as a way of transferring the imaging from the OCT scanner to the Glass. “We can use that code, since it’s transferring images back and forth, to do the same thing we want to do,” Monroy said. “So you’ll make a Hangout with the system, and send the images you want the same way.”


The research isn’t dependent on Glass, so Monroy and Boppart were initially skeptical of traveling to San Francisco, given the conspicuous meeting arrangement and lack of official confirmation that Monroy had won, aside from a congratulatory reply message. Google had Glass pick-ups available at its offices in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it briefed Glass Explorers on how to use and program for Glass. Eventually, Monroy found out from other Glass Explorers on the Internet that this was legitimately Google’s method of distribution, so he made the trip and picked up the hardware.


Monroy is hopeful that Glass can prove to be an effective monitor for the display of OCT imaging. If it proves ineffective, however, he will still have Google’s latest technological toy for all his trouble.


“It’s a huge opportunity just to have access to Glass, not even research-wise,” Monroy said. “But then to be able to integrate it into something practical is even better because then I’m not just taking pictures of me cooking dinner. I’m trying to help push medicine into the future of what I think it could be.”


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