From Science Node: “Don’t look away”

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From Science Node

16 Oct, 2018
Alicia Clarke

What if eye-tracking games could improve the lives of people living with autism?

At some point we’ve probably all found ourselves immersed in a video game—having fun while trying to advance to the next level. But what if games could do more than entertain? What if they could improve cognitive behaviors and motor skills at the same time?

If you look away, you crash your spaceship. Gaze-driven games harness the connection between eye movement and attention, training players that better engagement gets better results. Courtesy Alex Matthews, UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute.

Those are some of the questions that led neuroscientist and eye tracking expert Leanne Chukoskie to create video games that do just that. Chukoskie now directs the Power of Neuorgaming Center (aptly shortened to PoNG) at the Qualcomm Institute. There she and her team create video games to help people on the autism spectrum lead fuller lives.

Filling a gap

Together with Jeanne Townsend, director of UC San Diego’s Research on Autism and Development Lab, Chukoskie saw an opening to explore neurogaming as a way to improve attention, gaze control and other behaviors associated with autism. The video games are gaze-driven, which means that they are played with the eyes, and not a mouse or a touchscreen.

“We realized there was enormous growth potential in autism intervention—where you translate research into tools that can help people,” Chukoskie said. “Jeanne and I wanted to intervene, not just measure things. We wanted our work to be useful to the world sooner rather than later. And these games are the result of that goal.”

The power of attention. UCSD researchers are developing games that train attention-orienting skills like a muscle, improving social development outcomes for children with autism. Courtesy Global Silicon Valleys.

Chukoskie and her team, which includes adults on the autism spectrum and high school students, created four games and are busy making more. Their work was recently on display at the Qualcomm Institute during PoNG’s 2018 Internship Showcase.

“Dr. Mole and Mr. Hide is one of our favorites. It’s basically what you think it is—all these little moles pop out of holes and you have to look at them to knock them back down. There are ninja moles you want to hit. Then the player begins to see professor moles, which we don’t want them to hit. (My joke is we don’t hit professors at UC San Diego!) This promotes fast and accurate eye movement and builds inhibitory control,” she explained.

Beyond the lab

Getting the games in the hands of people who can benefit from them most is another aspect that keeps Chukoskie busy. She and Townsend co-founded BrainLeap Technologies in 2017 to make that goal a reality. BrainLeap Technologies is headquartered in the Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space, just a short walk from the PoNG lab.

Dr. Mole and Mr. Hide. Knocking down moles as they pop out of holes promotes fast and accurate eye movement and builds inhibition control. Courtesy BrainLeap Technologies.

“We want to make the games available to families, and eventually schools, so they do the most good for the most people.” said Chukoskie. “Starting a company wasn’t what I had in mind initially, but it soon became clear that’s what we needed to do.”

As with her lab, students and interns play a critical role at BrainLeap Technologies. They bring their creativity, energy and skill. In return, they develop professional skills they can take into the workforce and their communities.

The power of collaboration

Not just for autism. Neuroscientist Leanne Chukoskie is also exploring using video game simulations with sensors that monitor stress responses as a possible intervention against human trafficking. Courtesy Alex Matthews, UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute.

Chukoskie’s enthusiasm and knack for developing products with real-world applications is creating buzz within the walls of the Qualcomm Institute. She is exploring other fields where neurogaming could have an impact. One area is human trafficking. Could video simulations with sensors that monitor stress responses help people recognize subtle signs of danger first in a simulation and then later in the real world? The opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations are endless.

“UC San Diego, and especially the Qualcomm Institute, opened my eyes to what can happen when we bring the power of our expertise together,” Chukoskie said. “On top of that, the institute has a strong social mission. It didn’t take long for it to become obvious that the Qualcomm Institute was the right place for our lab and our business.”

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