Digital Animation To Help Kids With Autism Develop Social Skills

Gary Jesch, owner of Invirtua and a digital puppeteer who has been in the live animation industry for 20 years, was inspired to see what he could do for those on the autism spectrum.
Eye contact, social skills & social interaction, and difficulties with attention and concentration are some of the many challenges children with autism face on a regular basis. Going to therapy sessions to develop or enhance these skills is not unusual for these children. However, sessions with an adult therapist can be dull, mundane and not fun. Therapists most likely know that too, but how would they make their therapy sessions more interesting for the children and make sure they grasp everything they are being taught? Another challenge for the therapists is that there are a number of established and emerging interventions, and they would want to stick to them without bringing in another medium that would water down or compromise the details of interventions.
This is where Invirtua 3D Digital Puppeteer’s digital avatars come into the picture. Instead of doing a direct one on one session with the child, a therapist can introduce an animated avatar that helps energize the session. The therapist is still involved. They are still driving the session – they are the ones who control the avatars and use them as a medium to interact with the children. And for the children, the session get more enjoyable and fun!
This is how the setup works – the therapists client room will have a  monitor, webcam and speakers
photo of gary jesch, owner of invirtua at teh autism society national conference in denver

that are connected to a computer in a different corner of the room or in a different room altogether. This computer run the software that has all the animated avatars. The avatar’s facial expressions, emotions and body movement are controlled by a tablet and joystick connected to the computer. The joystick controls the eyes, and tablet controls the position of the avatar on the screen and various emotions that the therapist wants the avatar to display. The trackpad also has vertical sliders for expressions – the higher you go on the slider, the greater that expression is displayed by the avatar. (think of smiling as an expression) While controlling the avatar, the therapist also speaks into a microphone to be the voice of the avatar. Essentially, everything being done on the computer is being reflected on the monitor in the client room – the child sees and hears the avatar, observes all the positive behavior (body language, facial expressions) that the avatar is demonstrating, and learns from it without having to deal with the stress of being in a therapy session with another adult. Therapy now becomes fun and something to look forward to! Through these avatars, therapists can also be comical and goofy to be entertaining to the child! It is quite easy for the child as a client of the therapist to control the avatar themselves and they find that idea very motivating, as Invirtua discovered in their pilot program. Children love the idea of being in control and being the “avateer”.

One thing nice about these avatars is that they intersect and integrate well with therapeutic approach. They don’t add anything overbearing to the session nor do they try to change any of the therapy processes – all they do is bring in a mechanism that helps children grasp knowledge without any unnecessary stress.
The complete system consisting of a high end computer, software, tablet and joystick can be purchased for $2,790 from Invirtua’s website. To put things in perspective, a similar setup would have cost around $30,000 two years ago. The low cost of this system also makes it possible for parents to buy and install it at home, and start using it with their child while they are waiting to be aligned with a therapist. Sadly, it can take anywhere from 6 – 12 months before a child can meet their therapist.
Invirtua would keep developing and enhancing this technology. In the future, we may see it on Xbox, virtual reality devices like Oculus and even augmented reality (AR) devices like Microsoft’s Hololens.
Invirtua 3D Digital Puppeteer system is available to purchase through Invirtua’s website. It takes 2-3 weeks to deliver and is shipped worldwide.
Gary introduced this system at the Autism Society National Conference in Denver last week. In the video below, he talks in detail about his inspiration behind these avatars, how this system works, shows us why and how a therapist would use it, and talks about pricing and future plans.
Adam Mercier, a visitor at the conference who happened to be at Gary’s booth,  tried it out while I was waiting to talk to Gary. Adam has Asperger’s, and after trying out the avatars briefly, was quite excited and wished he had access to such a system while growing up in the ’90s.

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