Social Anxiety Treated with Technology

bully, social anxiety, Pegasys-VRBecause they avoid social encounters, children growing up with social anxiety disorder or severe shyness often do not learn how to effectively engage in social encounters.  Clinicians can teach social skills in the clinic, but children often do not get all of the opportunities that they need to practice  in the community. Many clinicians are not able to conduct practice sessions outside of their office and busy parents cannot always ensure that their children have the chance to apply the social skills they learned in the clinic.

Dr. Deborah C. Beidel of the Psychology Department, along with her colleagues at Virtually Better, Inc. developed Pegasys-VR. In September, the team was awarded a Phase II Small Business Technology Transfer grant for $2.1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to further enhance and develop the system.

Pegasys-VR is a virtual environment school with six avatars that represent typical school personnel including adults and children, allowing children opportunities to practice what they learned in the clinic

Right now, the avatars speak only when a clinician clicks on a dialogue screen. Using the grant, the avatars will “come to life”  as children practice social interactions. The avatars will be developed to be able to respond “naturally” to the child’s speech.

“In this new project, we will give the avatars artificial intelligence. That is, at the end of this project, people will be able to interact with the avatars without the need for a clinician,” said Beidel. “Just like Siri, the avatars will respond when spoken to.”

The project will also develop additional virtual environments, characters and a homework practice system using serious game technologies.

Beidel stated that “practice and more practice is the key to getting over social fears.”

By developing this new technology, the team is giving children who are shy the ability to practice social interactions from the comfort of their own home, independently, in a way that is enjoyable and educational.

The entire program will eventually be available on the internet, which will make distribution across the nation much easier.

The research team responsible for creating Pegasys-VR was headed by Principal Investigator, Dr. Deborah Beidel. Dr. Clint Bowers will serve as as Co-Principal Investigator on the new project and Dr. Liqiang Ni will be a Co-Investigator. The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California along with Virtually Better, Inc. also contributed.

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