Just click for counselling

AVATAR technology started out as a fun mechanism through which to play the mighty hero in a computer game. But these days its potential is expanding by the minute.

By Debbie Watson

AVATAR technology started out as a fun mechanism through which to play the mighty hero in a computer game. But these days its potential is expanding by the minute.

DEBBIE WATSON looks at how BTExact's radical multimedia laboratory at Martlesham is now showing the way forward for online therapy.

THERE may soon be no need to lie down on a couch when you want to tell someone all about your innermost anxieties.


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In the wake of virtual shopping, the latest futuristic idea under development is virtual therapy – allowing stressed-out people to get help from counsellors online.

It's a facility which might so easily have spared the likes of Woody Allen and Princess Diana their many hours spent on their therapists' couches.

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And it all uses technology based here in Suffolk – through a revolutionary system of animated 3D imagery.

Three years ago, as the Millennium Dome neared its opening, BT's Martlesham-based staff were about to unveil the avatar technology which would transport people into a virtual world.

Today, with the benefit of that early experience, BTExact Technologies has taken the avatar concept to new heights. From its Adastral Park hub in the heart of Suffolk, it is leading the way.

Inside the radical multimedia laboratory, the team has been hard at work to stretch the potential of 3D technology.

But the latest breakthrough came as a surprise.

"We were contacted here at the lab by an outside body who saw the potential for our service,"

commented avatar and virtual human project manager Jo Osborne.

"A counsellor by the name of Kate Anthony had completed her PhD in the concept of counselling over the internet. She came to us with the belief that there were gaping holes in such therapy practices because the whole thing was very impersonal.

"She wanted to expand the theory and to see whether our avatar technology could front the systems that already exist."

In itself, this approach was a tribute to the Martlesham team, demonstrating their reputation for research.

"We took it as a great compliment to our work and were happy to work with Kate," said Jo.

"She has great experience within the field and runs onlinecounsellors.co.uk, so we felt confident in testing our technology in this way. It's exactly the kind of opportunity that we look for."

The idea was to create sophisticated computer-generated 3D photographic representations of individual counsellors.

Those would then be coupled with speech recognition and a knowledge base of typical questions dealt with today in various counselling centres.

As an experimental site was developed, the advantages quickly became apparent.

"It's my understanding that the therapy world had been somewhat cynical about counselling online, so we had a lot to prove," said Jo.

"This system showed that we could allow patients to remain anonymous, avoid the geographical drawback of getting to a particularly renowned counsellor and provide a 'face' to a computer-based session."

Jo added: "It makes it more personal. With our technology we can even offer a patient the chance to click on the counsellor of the ethnicity of their choice, and provide them with a counselling environment in which they feel more comfortable."

For this aspect, the lab has created numerous virtual therapy areas, including a quiet office, the outdoor surrounds of a garden, or even a patio table by a pool.

Group sessions are also possible.

"The system means that people can either type in questions and have online help fed back to them by an avatar from a pre-created resource of information, which works on keywords, or they can arrange to have the counsellor online with them and responding in real time through the avatar face on screen," said Jo.

"Alternatively, we can set up for them to be part of a group therapy session – with anyone from around the world – on a specific topic like post-natal depression.

"For this, they can see themselves represented as an avatar in a room of other people, and with a counsellor also present."

Jo added: "The technology is such that we can even create a hot key facility which will allow people to tap on the keyboard to show the rest of the room when they are getting emotional, angry, or are feeling happier."

The research with the web counselling service has so far proved a success.

From the project Jo and the team have realised an ability to conduct sessions through internet (or e–mail) relay chat, through video, or even with standalone CD-rom software.

It is a concept which makes cyberspace more rewarding and helpful in our daily lives than has ever been considered before.

"The idea is an exciting one and we've all been really thrilled to be involved with something that looks as if it could have such a great benefit to so many people," said Jo.

She said the avatar system started out to bring computer-users fun, but is now being used for

serious and constructive purposes.

"Hopefully this is just the start of many more exciting things that our team can achieve in the wider world with the use of avatar."

WeblinkS

www.onlinecounsellors.co.uk

www.btexact.com

BTExact has discovered several possibilities for its avatar technology. As well as the counselling project, they have recently been working on:

VIRTUAL SHOPPING

Thousands of items of clothing are ordered online and by mail order every year. A huge number of those garments will also be returned.

Be it because of ill-fit or a bad match with existing clothes items, some shoppers find it's just not possible to successfully buy online without trying on first.

BTExact is working on technology which enables people to do just that – thus potentially saving clothing companies millions.

Their research programme is based on the idea of putting your own vital statistics into the computer and having an avatar of your body created for the screen. (You can put your photo on this from a digital photo if you prefer).

As you click on the items of clothing, the programme will then 'fit' the garments on to you, thus telling you which size you should get rather than forcing you to assume the most likely size.

You can even match clothes with other items to see how they look, and watch yourself walk in the clothes.

VIRTUAL BUILDING DESIGN

When Woodbridge School began considering the creation of a new building for itself and the local community, it desperately wanted to attract investors.

They had created artists impressions, but people still weren't able to get a full idea of the concept.

So BTExact used its technology to create a 'living building'. It allows people to walk up stairs, along corridors and generally see every detail of the new building as if they were walking through the real version.

Details are so specific that even the beer pumps at the bar are labelled for all to see!

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