North­eastern Uni­ver­sity last week con­vened an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary group of researchers for the 2014 Inter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Intel­li­gent Vir­tual Agents. The annual conference—which this year focused on health­care applications—is a leading sci­en­tific forum for pre­senting research on mod­eling, devel­oping, and eval­u­ating intel­li­gent vir­tual agents with a focus on com­mu­nica­tive abil­i­ties and social behavior.

Intel­li­gent vir­tual agents, or IVAs, are inter­ac­tive char­ac­ters that exhibit human-​​like qual­i­ties such as real-​​time per­cep­tion, cog­ni­tion, and action, and they can com­mu­ni­cate with humans or with each other using nat­ural human modal­i­ties such as facial expres­sions, speech, and gesture.

This year’s con­fer­ence, held Aug. 27–29, drew more than 125 experts from 11 coun­tries. IVA 2014 was co-​​organized by North­eastern fac­ulty mem­bers Tim­othy Bick­more and Stacy Marsella. Bick­more, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and one of the leaders of Northeastern’s per­sonal health infor­matics pro­gram, develops and studies rela­tional agents capable of emu­lating face-​​to-​​face inter­ac­tion with people and in recent years has focused on avatars for patient edu­ca­tion and changing health behav­iors. Marsella, who joined Northeastern’s fac­ulty in Jan­uary and holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, develops pro­grams that sim­u­late human emo­tion across a variety of appli­ca­tions. One of his pro­grams, Cere­bella, gives vir­tual humans the same ability to convey emo­tion through facial expres­sions and hand ges­tures as they com­mu­ni­cate with other virtual—or even real—humans.

In the conference’s first keynote address, Dr. Joseph Kvedar, founder and director of the Center for Directed Health at Part­ners Health­care, said pro­jected future short­ages of physi­cians and nurses under­score the need for more rela­tional agents in health­care set­tings. Kvedar, an inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized expert in con­nected health and telemed­i­cine, said vir­tual agents can sup­ple­ment health­care pro­fes­sionals’ work by automating cer­tain ser­vices, thereby increasing effi­cien­cies and reducing costs. The onset of such avatars dove­tails with the health­care industry’s trending toward pre­ven­ta­tive care and well­ness. As Kvedar put it, “How can we effec­tively use tech­nology to scale our people across con­sumers and patients, keeping them healthy and out of the high-​​cost part of the system?”

Max­i­mizing patient engagement—particularly though per­son­al­ized methods that employ moti­va­tional coaching, games, or social networking—with these agents is crit­ical to improving health out­comes, Kvedar said. His center’s work includes studies that have employed algorithm-​​driven auto­mated engage­ment methods, like text mes­saging, that target areas like dia­betes, blood pres­sure, smoking ces­sa­tion, and even sun­screen use. Other projects have involved vir­tual agents; sev­eral years ago, Kvedar teamed up with Bick­more for a study at the Boston Med­ical Center that used a vir­tual agent to moti­vate par­tic­i­pants to meet walking goals.

These kinds of rela­tional agents dis­cussed at the con­fer­ence also sprung into action at a research expo on Wednesday night. Sev­eral fea­tured Bickmore’s rela­tional agents being used in a variety of health­care sce­narios, among them avatars that offer social sup­port for iso­lated elderly adults, help women estab­lish healthier behav­iors before and during preg­nancy, and edu­cate people in His­panic com­mu­ni­ties at a high risk for car­dio­vas­cular disease.

Other projects fea­tured included a nurse-​​training pro­gram devel­oped at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida’s Vir­tual Expe­ri­ences Research Group in which nurses are chal­lenged in a vir­tual set­ting to speak up to the sur­geon and anes­the­si­ol­o­gist prior to a patient’s surgery. Another sim­u­lated crowds and social gath­er­ings in a vir­tual Reyk­javik, Ice­land, with one appli­ca­tion being to teach Ice­landic to tourists and other non-​​native speakers.

Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science and one of the leaders of Northeastern’s personal health informatics program, develops and studies relational agents capable of emulating face-to-face interaction with people and in recent years has focused on avatars for patient education and changing health behaviors. Northeastern University photo.

Tim­othy Bick­more, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and one of the leaders of Northeastern’s per­sonal health infor­matics pro­gram, develops and studies rela­tional agents capable of emu­lating face-​​to-​​face inter­ac­tion with people and in recent years has focused on avatars for patient edu­ca­tion and changing health behav­iors. North­eastern Uni­ver­sity photo.

But before you intro­duce a vir­tual agent to a patient, you first have to create one that’s oper­a­tional, effec­tive, and life­like. With that in mind, Ter­rence Masson, exec­u­tive pro­fessor and head of ani­ma­tion in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, on Thursday morning dis­cussed the his­tory of break­throughs in ani­ma­tion technology.

In his keynote, Masson explored the his­tory of com­puter graphics tech­nology and shared some of his own expe­ri­ences working in the industry on more than 20 fea­ture films—from Star Wars to Hook to Ter­mi­nator 2—as well as com­mer­cials and video games. He fre­quently cited the value of col­lab­o­rating on visual effects projects, which often com­bine exper­tise and vision; col­lab­o­ra­tion, he said, is sim­i­larly impor­tant to those in atten­dance who are building vir­tual agents.

During a Q-​​and-​​A, one audi­ence member asked how devel­opers of vir­tual agents in health­care set­tings can create rela­tional agents that have sim­i­larly strong emo­tional con­nec­tions with patients that exist in films between vir­tual and human char­ac­ters. In response, Masson sug­gested the answer could be in the storytelling.

It has a lot to do with empathy,” said Masson, offering that a health­care avatar might have a per­sonal story to which the patient can relate. “I think it requires either that back­ground nar­ra­tive or per­sonal empathy with that character.”