Researchers from the Universities of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies are leading the way in the creation of virtual humans – the results of which could help those in need.
Blinking naturally and shuffling slightly in her chair, Ellie the virtual human starts her dialogue by introducing herself and pointing out that she is not a therapist, but would like to learn more about real people.
The way she speaks and reacts to people is determined by the tone of voice, facial expressions and body language of the person talking. All of these details are picked up by a simple gaming sensor and webcam. Researcher Dr Louis-Philippe Morency describes this as ‘Wizard of Oz mode’.
Ellie is currently controlled by a team of two while data is gathered and analysed. Gradually, the computer will learn how to react in every situation. Soon enough, Ellie will be able to fly solo, opening up a world of possibility for remote therapy sessions utilizing knowledge from some of the world’s top psychologists.
Dr Morency does not believe that this method will replace real, flesh and blood therapists however,
“We see it more as being an assistant for the clinician in the same way you take a blood sample which is analysed in a lab and the results sent back to the doctor.”
The system is being specifically designed to assess signs of post-traumatic stress or depression, which they hope will be particularly useful in the military.
With the stigma attached to mental illness and the logistical issues that face those in the army, it is hoped that technology like Ellie could become a stopgap therapy to help those in need. Throughout the University more and more research is being carried out that is slowly blurring the lines between reality and virtual reality – and the resulting software may just help humans who need it.
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