Defense Systems published an article last week about conversational avatars used by the U.S. Army. The avatars are the result of a partnership between the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). In the fall of 2013 I did an interview with Arno Hartholt of ICT and published the results in a post called Virtual Humans to the Rescue.
The Defense Systems article describes several ARL/ICT-built avatars and their specific use cases. Ellie is a virtual human that can pick up on facial and other cues to detect the emotion of the person she’s speaking with. ICT calls the mood-sensing technology used by Ellie SimSensei and you can see a demo in this video. Ellie has been effectively employed to converse with war veterans and detect markers that could signal Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) or depression.
The Army’s continued partnership with ICT points to a goal of expanding the use of immersive training. Conversational embodied virtual agents seem to be a significant part of that work. Two other use cases covered in the article are the Virtual Standard Patient and the Emergent Leader Immersive Training Environment. The virtual patient helps medical students hone their interviewing and diagnostic skills, while the Emergent Leader avatar works with junior leaders to improve their communication skills using role-playing exercises.
The Army has been employing and developing these avatars for several years now and continues to partner with ICT, so the technology must be having some positive results. The Defense Systems article notes that DARPA is also exploring ways to improve a computer’s ability to carry on human-like conversation. DARPA announced the Communicating with Computers project back in February of this year. As yet, I haven’t seen any news about the winners of DARPA’s competitive announcement.
Conversational technologies will undoubtedly be a key area of intelligent assistants going forward, and the ARL’s partnership with ICT is helping to forge new ground in that arena.