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Surprising Science

Therapy’s About To Get Virtual

Scientists at USC believe “Ellie,” a combination of sensors and software, could possibly revolutionize talk therapy by giving human therapists information on patient biometrics.

What’s the Latest Development?

“Ellie” is the name scientists at USC have given to a combination of hardware and software that together presents patients with a highly realistic virtual therapist. While her rendered image appears on the screen, three devices track and record the patient’s words, tone, facial movements, and gestures: 60 unique biometric features in all. She then responds based on the accumulated data, and it’s a lot of data; together the devices can record about 1800 measurements a minute. After each session, she produces a detailed report that human therapists can study for more information.

What’s the Big Idea?

Ellie was originally developed to help the US military address the growing number of suicides among its ranks after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Co-creator Albert “Skip” Rizzo says, “[People have] their true self and the self that they want to project to the world. And we know that the body displays things that sometimes people try to keep contained….What computers [like Ellie] offer is the ability to look at massive amounts of data and begin to look at patterns, and that, I think, far outstrips the mere mortal brain.” Ellie will begin tests with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans this summer.

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Read it at NPR


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