Bill Swartout: “Learning with Virtual Humans”

February 8, 2012 | Washington, DC

Speaker: Bill Swartout, ICT
Host: National Science Foundation Cyberlearning Research Summit

For over a decade, we have built virtual humans at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Our goal is to create computer-generated characters that look, communicate and behave like real people as much as possible. Specifically, these characters are autonomous, thinking on their own. They interact in a fluid, natural way using verbal and non-verbal communication. They exhibit emotions, and do it all in a coherent, integrated fashion. They are perhaps the ultimate test for artificial intelligence. Initially, we thought virtual humans would act as replacements for human role players in learning exercises, but we now realize that the potential for virtual humans is far more profound: virtual humans are able to connect with real people in powerful and complex ways. Studies done by us and others have shown repeatedly that people respond to virtual humans as if they are real people. Computers are already great at dispensing information, and so by adding a rich array of social elements to the communication by using a virtual human, computers gain the ability to build relationships and establish rapport. This increases user engagement and sense of immersion. In sum, virtual humans have the potential to create an entirely new metaphor for how we interact with computers and this has important implications for education.

Some of our virtual human learning systems include: – The Twins: As virtual docents and STEM role models at the Museum of Science, Boston, the twins can tell visitors about things to do and even answer general questions about information technology and how they work. – Coach Mike: Also at the Museum of Science, Coach Mike helps visitors learn to program a robot. He helps visitors get started, gives advice if they get stuck, and celebrates their successes. Coach Mike may be the first intelligent tutoring system that actually enjoys his job! – SimCoach: Available online, SimCoach uses a virtual character to help returning veterans confront problems such as depression and PTSD by engaging them in a dialogue to find appropriate resources. While the information is similar to what could be obtained from a website like WebMD, the use of a highly approachable virtual character allows us to create rapport and lower the barriers to care. – INOTS is an interactive system designed to teach junior naval officers about how to handle personnel problems. A virtual character plays an enlisted sailor who has misbehaved. Counsel him well and the situation will be resolved; do badly and bad will go to worse.

Thorough evaluations of these systems show that people (1) respond to virtual humans as they would real people, (2) engage the task more deeply and in meaningful ways, and (3) gain knowledge based on what the characters convey. Although diverse, these systems are united by their use of virtual humans. Virtual humans open up new horizons for using computers in education. For too long, students have had to adjust their behaviors to suit computers; we believe it is time to turn the tables and make computers act more like people.