For almost 20 years, the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) has been a leader in researching and developing immersive technologies that help solve problems facing our military’s service members, students, and society as a whole.
By Trevor Jackins, Neospeech
ICT takes the brightest minds specializing in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other immersive technologies and brings them together with Los Angeles’ best artists from the film and video game industries specializing in storytelling, engagement, and graphic design.
Together, this team studies how people engage with computers, virtual simulations and virtual characters. By studying this behavior and understanding how we interact with technology, ICT has been able to create better techniques and technologies that are used for a wide range of applications including education and healthcare.
Recently, ICT has turned to NeoSpeech’s text-to-speech voices to help bring one of their new systems to life. The Personal Assistant for Life Long Learning (PAL3) is an upcoming system for delivering engaging and accessible education.
It features an interactive agent, called “Pal” that helps guide students through courses. Pal is a friendly, informative, and humorous robot that is voiced by NeoSpeech’s text-to-speech technology.
The goal of PAL3 is to help U.S. Navy sailors learn and retain information better by providing on-the-job training and supporting lifelong learning.
To help us get a better idea of how PAL3 works, we reached out to the project leaders of the PAL3 project, Bill Swartout and Ben Nye, to talk about why they started this project and how their system uses text-to-speech and other functions to improve education.
How did the PAL3 project get started?
According to Bill Swartout, project leader and Chief Technology Officer at ICT, one of the biggest issues facing education is that students tend to lose knowledge during long downtimes. This is true for the military, K-12 schools, businesses, and education as a whole.
The U.S. Navy noticed these problems and came to ICT for help. They said that their sailors would learn about the skills they need during training but would then lose their skill set over time before ever getting a chance to apply them.
Their solution was to develop an education system that was both fun and accessible. They wanted students to be able to access this system from anywhere, at anytime. Plus, they wanted students to be engaged while using it to improve their learning experience and keep them motivated to want to learn more. The result was PAL3.
What is PAL3 and how does it work?
Calling PAL3 an eLearning platform doesn’t quite do it justice. Yes, it provides training courses online which students can access from their computers and mobile devices, but there is so much more to it than that.
It features an ever-growing library of curated training resources including pre-existing tutorial systems and custom made content. The PAL3 system even lets students find and suggest new content to add to each course. It keeps track of students’ progress, and suggests what new materials to learn or what old materials to review when the time is right.
But one of the best features that the PAL3 system has to offer is Pal, the virtual agent. Pal is more than just a tutor, he’s a guide that connects with students, helps them learn, encourages them, and leaves them wanting more.
Swartout mentioned the importance of leaving students wanting more, citing that students are often distracted and like to do things other than studying.
“We wanted this to be something you could do in your free time,” Swartout said, “To make it work, we had to make it very engaging. We’re competing with the internet, TV, and video games. We needed it to talk and be engaging to appeal to students”.
This is one of the reasons why ICT decided to give Pal a voice with text-to-speech technology. Enabling Pal to communicate makes the PAL3 system more engaging. In fact, the researchers at ICT have found that people tend to respond to virtual humans nearly the same as real people.
To help make Pal seem as real as possible, the team at ICT choose NeoSpeech’s James voice to be the voice of Pal.
So what is Pal like?
Ben Nye, project leader and Director of Learning Science Research at ICT, told us that it was very important to get Pal’s personality and voice just right.
“We found that dry wit was useful,” said Nye, “It helps build rapport. So we gave Pal a bit of sarcastic humor”.
Nye talked about certain scenarios when Pal’s sarcastic sense of humor might come out. For example, if a student is supposed to click a button that says “BEGIN LESSON” but takes a long time to do it, they might hear Pal say, “This is supposed to be the easy part”.
Pal might also make a snarky comment after you miss a question to keep things fun. However, Nye mentioned the struggles in getting this just right.
“We found that we had to adjust the tone because it was too sarcastic,” said Nye after some students tested out the PAL3 system, “We had to make it adaptive. Now Pal will only make a snarky comment after you’ve been doing well and then all of a sudden get something wrong. But, if you’re always struggling, then Pal will be more encouraging”.
By perfecting Pal’s personality, ICT is making Pal as helpful, informative, and fun as possible.
Their use of text-to-speech technology is a big part of this since it is what gives Pal his personality. Rather than just using the text-to-speech function to read off all the words on the screen, they’re using it to make Pal interact with students like how any real-life tutor would.
Other ways ICT is making Pal more engaging is by designing him to look and feel like a sidekick. They designed him to appeal to their target audience, which are people in their 20s. Students can also customize Pal and unlock cool features as they progress.
What does the future hold for PAL3?
To date, ICT has conducted a series of usability tests and will be conducting long-term studies. They found that usability marks were the highest that they’ve ever seen, and most of that seemed to be because of Pal. Even K-12 students who got to see the PAL3 system loved it and wished they could use it.
Swartout and Nye mentioned that the hardest challenge they currently face is trying to get people to use it in their free time. Some students would stop using it over time even though they gave it high marks. But the team at ICT is confident that Pal can help overcome this challenging road block.
The U.S. Navy is considering incorporating PAL3 as part of a large program to expand their learning resources. With PAL3, the Navy will be able to help train sailors and also guide them with their career goals.
And way down the road, Swartout and Nye see PAL3 being adopted by online educators in the private sector, so be on the lookout for Pal in the near future!
To see Pal in action, check out this video released by ICT that highlights the PAL3 system!