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Treating schizophrenia with virtual reality and robots

Thu 17 Mar 2016

For the last three years an EU-funded initiative has been conducting research into the treatment of schizophrenia, autism and social phobia via the use of virtual reality, avatars and through interaction with humanoid robots.

The AlterEgo project is founded on the theory that we interact best with people who resemble us, and to this end employs full body scanning techniques to create virtual versions of patient subjects, as well as using a ‘mirrored’ version of Europe’s iCub robot to take part in social interaction with the patients.

Though the iCub robot obviously resembles no human, the mimicry under experimentation involves more than physical similarity, divided into morphological (resemblance), behavioural (actions) and kinematic (signature movement styles).

The project is attempting to lead the way towards ‘a new generation of social artificial agents in service robotics, includes research in fundamental and clinical neurosciences, interaction modelling, the development of new computer-vision techniques and human-robot interfaces, as well as evaluation of the scenarios with patients before, during, and after training sessions.’

Funded by 2.9 million euros from the European Union, AlterEgo is taking place at France’s Hospital of Montpellier under the guidance of the European Centre for Research on Human Movement (EuroMov), having won an award during the call for European projects in the field of Cognitive Sciences and Robotics in 2012.

The team includes computer specialists from the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, UK mathematicians from Bristol University and Exeter University and roboticists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, as well as physicians from the Montpellier facility.

A French news report (embedded below) shows the process of scanning a patient’s form, creating an analogous version of him (less physically accurate in this case than many others in the project) and having him interact physically with the avatar via motion-monitoring.

EuroMov’s director Prof Benoît Bardy believes that the wide range of feedback experiments that AlterEgo has conducted since 2013 may ultimately lead to new interactive cognitive architecture applications which sufferers can use via home entertainment systems to learn social skills.

Patients are evaluated before, during and after interaction sessions with identity-challenging entities. Some of the projects are lower-tech. In one facial recognition experiment [PDF] participants were required to observe pictures of their own face, an unknown face and a celebrity’s face in both passive and active situations, with the three pictures morphed into 15 variants throughout the experiment using Fantamorph.

‘Experimental situation of the facial recognition experiment. Illustration of faced morphing in three steps from their own face into an unknown face. An eyetracker was used to record visual scan paths.’

‘Experimental situation of the facial recognition experiment. Illustration of faced morphing in three steps from their own face into an unknown face. An eyetracker was used to record visual scan paths.’

The iCub experiments centre around the problems experienced by schizophrenia and autism sufferers regarding engaging eye-contact [PDF], and the research team believes to have broken significant new ground as a result of having subjects interact with the robot:

alterego-icub-participation‘The auspicious results of these study shed light on possible strategies to design computer-assisted cognitive therapy for gaze impairment. Moreover, analyses shows, by embedding active gaze behaviour in avatars/robots, affiliation in human-computer interaction can be systematically improved.’

The project’s lead scientist Ludovic Marin acknowledges the sensitive nature of AlterEgo’s ambit: “We appreciate that this is a very sensitive project where the welfare of the patients comes first, so we are careful to continue to seek clearance for all our activities from national ethics bodies.”

AlterEgo is set to conclude in July of this year, and in the final six months is increasing the number of test subjects from 40 to 100. The project leaders hope to develop applications that can be used by other research efforts, particularly for patients affected by autism and other social phobias.

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EU Europe health medical research
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