Avatars. Avatars are images that rep­re­sent either a person or some other sen­tient guide to a pro­gram. Avatars are used across a variety of set­tings, from IKEA’s Anna (who will help­fully guide you to their bed­room depart­ment if you com­plain about your saggy mat­tress) to the iPhone’s Siri. In health­care, one intriguing use of avatars has been the work of Tim­othy Bick­more and the Rela­tional Agents Group at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. This team has cre­ated cartoon-​​based avatars that walk hos­pital patients through dis­charge instruc­tions using an inter­ac­tive question-​​and-​​answer system. While a clin­ical trial of the system is still ongoing, early results indi­cate that patients feel com­fort­able talking with the avatar and are sat­is­fied with the inter­ac­tion. More impres­sive, many patients actu­ally prefer talking to the avatar over a live health care pro­fes­sional. They feel sup­ported and lis­tened to by the avatar.

It’s impor­tant to note that Bickmore’s avatars are not hyper-​​realistic. They are clearly car­toon ani­ma­tions. Yet, patients in the trial are able to form an emo­tional bond with the avatars. This is due to a phe­nom­enon called anthro­po­mor­phiza­tion. This is when people assign human qual­i­ties to non-​​human objects, and it is most likely to happen when the object shares some char­ac­ter­is­tics with humans and when we are moti­vated to engage socially with the object (see Waytz, Eppley, & Cacioppo, 2010, for a review). Essen­tially, people looking for a social con­nec­tion can create one even with an object that they know not to be human. This cre­ates a feeling of relat­ed­ness in the absence of a live human being on the other end of the inter­ac­tion. Although, lest you forget the dark side of anthro­po­mor­phism, do you remember Microsoft’s paper­clip “helper”?

Read the article at Wired →