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Lifelike avatars provide new opportunities for aged care

Mike Seymour

Mike Seymour

Game-changing advances in computer-generated faces have the ability to create realistic looking digital companions and provide a new era of aged care support, an Australian researcher will tell an upcoming industry conference.

Sydney University PhD candidate Mike Seymour, who comes from the film and television effects industry, is researching the application of interactive “photoreal” faces in new forms of human computer interfaces and assistive technology.

Unlike computer-generated audio, people only respond well to faces that either look fantastically good or are a caricature, so unless it is a good face, no face is better, he said.

It is a major issue the film and entertainment industry has been struggling with and likely the reason why features such as Apple’s Siri are currently audio only, Mr Seymour said.

However, the latest advances have the virtual-reality technology almost at the point of being able to do a good likeness of a human face, he said.

“It has opened up a wealth of opportunities for things like aged care, dealing with people with dementia, or people who have had a stroke,” Mr Seymour told Technology Review ahead of his presentation at the Arts Health Institute’s The Future of Ageing conference.

“Often people have long-term memory but poor short-term memory. It is possible we could have a range of tools that would help people.”

Rather than having to deal with a text-based interface, such as traditional desktop and online applications, Mr Seymour said people would be able to interact with realistic looking digital companions or assistants, which have faces showing lifelike reactions.

Providing different access points

His presentation will explore a new wave of technology to address age-related issues arriving on the scene in 5 to 10 years, including research and developments underway from around the world.

One of those is a digital interface for an older person to “check in” via a normal human interaction process such as saying hello and answering a few simple questions, which would notify a contact in the case of a potential problem.

He said the user would know it was a digital device, but it would provide a more effective and friendly way of checking in than logging into a computer and filling in a questionnaire.

“Initial research for example, suggests if you had an avatar of your grandchildren then you are actually quite happy to say hello to it in the morning when you are making your cup of tea,” Mr Seymour said.

“You would know it was not your grandchild of course but it would be a beautiful rendering of your grandchild… It would just check that you are okay and perhaps it could also remind you of a course of medicine or things that were happening.

“However, it would do it using real normal voice communication with facial expression to help people feel more relaxed and comfortable with that’s going on.”

It is about providing different access points in our society, which is currently focused around doing things online or on a computer via a text-based interface, he said.

“We need to think of ways of producing these interfaces that naturally work with the way people think and react.

“For a lot of people, computer technology can still be daunting and can also be quite hard to manipulate if your eye sight is poor. But most people find it easy to respond to a lot of the nonverbal cues that the face gives, even if they are suffering from various restrictions,” he said.

The Future of Ageing National Play Up Convention, hosted by the Arts Health Institute, will be held 14-15 March in Sydney. Australian Ageing Agenda is a conference media partner.

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