Consultations with several doctors led to a devastating conclusion: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative disease of the neurological system that leads to paralysis and death.
Once the shock wore off, the Pennsburg woman started thinking about family milestones that might happen without her — soccer games played by her boys, Dillon and Eli, their birthdays, holidays.
The day will come, however, when she will find walking and even lifting her arm too difficult.
That's why she's excited to be participating in a beta test of Google Glass, which is essentially a wearable smartphone that can be operated with touch and voice commands. As part of development of the high-tech eyeglasses, Google is soliciting consumers' input, including the thoughts of people with disabilities.
As it works now, the wearer slips the device around the face like a pair of glasses. It can be worn alone or on top of prescription eyewear. Once the user starts it with a touch, he can activate applications with eye movement or a finger swipe on the side of the device. Information is projected as if viewed from a computer screen that is several feet away. It's not in the user's direct field of vision, so eyesight is not impaired.
It operates like a smartphone. Even with just a basic beta version, Brendle's Google Glass can take pictures, send messages and visit websites.
Brendle says it's "cool" to be part of the cutting edge of a new application of technology.
But in the not-too-distant future, Google Glass could allow people with ALS and other neurologic disabilities to perform daily activities and maintain independence, said Frank Hyland, vice president of rehabilitation at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network.
"It opens up the world to you," he said.
Brendle received the glasses last week from Alisa Brownlee, an assistive technologist at the ALS Association's Greater Philadelphia Chapter.
Not anyone can get Google Glass just yet. The company has some customers and so-called "Explorers" who request the early version of the device and, if approved, can buy it for $1,500. Brownlee said the foundation was approved and now is sharing it with Brendle and other people with ALS to get their feedback.
Brownlee looks forward to when Google Glass will help reconnect ALS patients to their communities, especially those who cannot afford adaptive vans costing as much as $40,000. If the individual is unable to get to an event, someone there can record a video of it and stream it to the user's Glass, where it can be viewed as it occurs. As any parent of a soccer player knows, fields can be far from parking lots, making attendance a big challenge for people like Brendle.
There are other obstacles. Snowy weather, for example, increases isolation for people with ALS.
"Some days, you don't feel you have the option to go out," Brendle said, noting that she's at high risk for falling any time.
Google Glass also could have practical, daily use too. Brendle said it could spare her the energy it would take to get up out of her seat to call her husband if she needs him when he's out of the house.
"I can tap it and send him a text saying, 'Can you come in five minutes?' Piece of cake."
Google Glass still needs tweaking before it can be embraced by all ALS users, Brownlee said. Some people with ALS cannot raise their arm to swipe it. Others have lost their ability to talk, rendering its voice activation useless. Those are challenges Google developers will have to overcome, she said.
One of the benefits Google Glass has over other technology is it doesn't require positioning, as eye gaze devices do, Brownlee said. That would help those who lose strength in their neck muscles and cannot keep their heads upright, she said. Eye gaze technology, first developed for military applications, uses an infrared light reader to give disabled people the ability to type with their eyes.
According to Hyland and John Grencer, administrative manager at Good Shepherd's technology program, Google Glass is one of a number of new devices that hold great promise for people with disabilities. The virtual reality headset called Oculus Rift may help those with limited control of their extremities, they said. Other technology in the works, but still far off, would use brain waves to command external actions.
They also foresee cloud-based software programs working with Google Glass that could help people with brain injuries remember to do daily tasks, or for those with autism spectrum disorders to recognize others' emotions.
- Pictures: Sarah Brendle tests a Google Glass
- Sarah Brendle tests Google Glas
Another benefit: Just as common technology like DVD players and smartphones got cheaper as they developed and attained market acceptance, so too will Google Glass. The current $1,500 price tag is expected to come down to around $500, they said. That's a lot more affordable and obviously a preferable option to an eye gaze device, which cost $30,000 a few years ago but still goes for around $7,500, Grencer said.
Google officials have been hazy about when a full retail rollout may occur, but it could be as soon as this year. They may soon have competition, as the Korea Times recently reported that Samsung is coming out with its version of wearable technology in the fall. Google's public relations staff did not return a message seeking further comment.
Meantime, Grencer and Brendle said Google should be commended for seeking input from a diverse group, including people with ALS.
The device certainly will "boost morale" among people with disabilities, Brendle said. Anything that increases their sense of security and independence will be embraced, she said.
"It gives them hope," she said, "because people with disabilities need something to be excited about."
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