Instead of revealing your deepest feelings to another human being, what if you could tell them all to a virtual therapist? The University of Southern California (USC) have developed this technology with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Louis-Phille Morency, an assistant professor at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, has been working on the virtual assistant for many years, as part of the university's SimSensei project. Ellie is able to read and respond to human emotion in real-time, and her responses are given through human-like animation.
To create the technology, the research team analyzed human interactions, then used this information to create a "virtual human" that was controlled by a real person. They then collected information about face-to-face therapy sessions, and added the relevant sensors for facial movement and dialogue managers. Lastly, they addd animation modules to give Ellie a virtual body.
After conversing with patients, Ellie is able to diagnose symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD. She can also help soldiers emotionally prepare for deployment.
Ellie has been tested on 500 people so far, and the researchers found that they are enjoying the experience. A demo session is 15 minutes long, but people kept extending their time, sometimes doubling it to 30 minutes.
Morency estimates the positive reaction is due to the fact that Ellie isn't able to judge patients the way another human being might. They are able to completely be themselves and inhibited. "People, after talking to Ellie, they feel better," he said. "Some people talk to their dogs; even though the dogs don't understand it ... I think there's a little bit of that effect — just talking with someone makes you feel better."
See how Ellie works in the video below.