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Jim the avatar brings student learning to life

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Meet Jim, a realistic computer simulation of an elderly, retired farmer with mild dementia. When speaking to Jim, he might not answer all of your questions, he could get angry or even cry when pressed for information, but it’s all part of the training.

Working with Jim allows students entering the aged healthcare system to interact with a  range of responses from people that they will likely come across in their clinical placements. The ability to gain realistic, preclinical skills means that the students will be better prepared and able to gain more comprehensive abilities in their real-life placements.

“Jim can be so valuable for preclinical training given that the students can then get more out of their actual placements,” says Dr Janet Beilby, Speech Pathologist, Scientist and Curtin University lecturer.

The scenario training between Jim and the students is run via a relatively simple arrangement. The avatar software technology runs from a laptop whose screen is transferred to a large screen television with cameras facing the student. A table and chair are set in front of the television and the student so that it appears as if the student is sitting down in a clinical office with Jim.  The trainer who controls Jim’s responses, is in an adjacent one-way observation room, watching and listening to the student’s responses. By allowing the student to sit in the room alone with Jim, it enhances the feeling of a genuine clinical session between them and the elderly gentleman.

The project to bring Jim to life was spearheaded by Dr Beilby and supported by a team of international researchers with 30 years combined experience in psychology, communication, behaviour management and software design.

Dr Beilby notes that Jim could be even more realistic, but they have intentionally left him slightly artificial.

“When virtual people are too realistic, the public can get quite uncomfortable,” says Dr Beilby. “You want a character who is not perfect, but realistic enough – and that’s the juggling act. You think of your elderly neighbour or your grandfather, which is a different history for everyone, and then you have room to bring your own life experiences into the interaction with the simulated elderly person.”

“We spent days filming an Australian gentlemen because I wanted an Australian accent with quintessential Australian mannerisms.”

The end result is a realistic elderly man who sits in front of the user, breathing, scratching his head, shuffling in his seat, waiting to be engaged.

“We spent a lot of time and effort on the anatomy,” says Dr Beilby. “The wrinkles on his face, the random movements and the breathing. He can be silent with the students and just be with them. He’s just gorgeous.”

In clinical and preclinical placements in the aged healthcare system, it is often difficult for students to practice the tough clinical scenarios that they will face they graduate, such as helping angry, disoriented or emotional individuals. Using Jim allows students to develop essential nonverbal and verbal communication skills with potentially difficult individuals in a way that is hard to teach without practical experience.

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To date, the avatar has been tested with 69 students who have responded positively.

“The experience with Jim is more beneficial to your learning,” says student Bianca Wytch after interacting with Jim for the first time.

“His responses aren’t as expected and planned as it would be during a person to person, face to face communication.”

The future for Jim is an exciting one. “The next development for Jim will include voice recognition software to allow him to respond automatically to the students without supervisor guidance. This will allow portable, safe, confidential, repeated, self-learning opportunities,” Dr Beilby said.

There are also plans to have Jim in a hospital bed to help students learn how to handle difficult bedside assessments and creating disorder-specific avatars to further students’ training. The potential for Jim extends beyond the healthcare system, because although he is not real, the learning that he creates certainly is real.

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