The Virtual Reality Doctor Will See You Now

Artificially intelligent virtual humans are an exciting innovation with great promise for providing mental healthcare services such as counseling, coaching, training and education services.

The combination of knowledge-based artificial intelligence, natural language processing, virtual reality simulation and other technologies provides these systems with the capability to interact with care seekers with a high level of realism that parallels interaction with human care providers.

How closely a virtual human resembles a human in appearance is important for optimizing both the design and the function of these systems. A simulation’s level of realism may significantly influence how people psychologically experience their interaction with it.

More than 40 years ago, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, hypothesized that as a robot’s appearance becomes more human-like, people’s emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic.

However, eventually a point is reached when its appearance actually becomes psychologically disturbing, or even revolting. As the robot’s appearance then moves further along the continuum to become even more human in appearance, the emotional response to it becomes positive again. This U-shaped response curve is called the “uncanny valley”.

The concept of the uncanny valley is highly relevant to the design of virtual-human care providers.

A person’s perception of a virtual human may depend on many variables unique to that person, such as prior experience with virtual humans and other psychological factors. Aesthetic aspects such as the proportions of facial features, skin color and texture may all influence how people experience and respond to virtual humans.

For example, a highly realistic simulation may be more engaging and interesting than one that is more cartoon-like. However, if the simulation is human-like but the people who are interacting with it have a perception that “something is not quite right”, it can be off-putting…

Two versions of a virtual-human coach from T2’s Virtual Life Coach project. (Photo from The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)/Released)

Two versions of a virtual-human coach from T2’s Virtual Life Coach project. (Photo from The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)/Released)

These photos show an example of a virtual human “coach” with two levels of realism. The photo on the left shows a virtual human with lower graphics resolution and less detail, which is more what people may expect from a computer simulation.

The image on the right looks much more human-like. Do you find one more unsettling than the other? A search of “uncanny valley” on the Internet reveals some very creepy examples of the uncanny-valley phenomena.

The use of artificially intelligent virtual-human systems are on the rise, as they can provide a highly efficient and effective way for people to access care services. While how unsettling the appearance of a virtual human may be is in the eye of the beholder, the goal of designers of these systems is to find the appropriate balance between level of realism and what is acceptable by end users who are to interact with them.

The appropriate balance for use in mental health care contexts is a question that requires further research that combines psychology, art, and software engineering in a very exciting way.

By David D. Luxton Ph.D.
Research Psychologist & Program Manager
The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)

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