Expressive Avatars in Psychological Intervention and Therapy

Expressive Avatars in Psychological Intervention and Therapy

Ana Paula Cláudio (Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal), Maria Beatriz Carmo (Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal), Augusta Gaspar (Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Portugal & Universitário de Lisboa, Portugal) and Renato Teixeira (Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7371-5.ch002


A wide range of applications for virtual humans can be envisaged for the needs of both research and intervention in Psychology. This chapter describes the development and preliminary testing of an interactive virtual reality application “Virtual Spectators” – whereby virtual humans with expressive behaviour modelled on the basis of field research in human facial expression in real emotion contexts can be configured to interact with people in an interview or jury. We discuss the possibilities of this application in cognitive behavioural therapy using virtual reality and in nonverbal behaviour.
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Virtual Reality In Psychology

Information Technologies (ITs) designed for human social interaction are currently living their heyday: daily all over the world, social robots make the news, and when not social robots, then artificial intelligence solutions, or the ever more realistic virtual reality games. These ITs hold so much promise for every field of human life, indeed, but entertainment, sales and industry seem to be those that are currently taking the most advantage of their potential.

A great deal of emphasis for ITs’ applications has been put in Health, including Mental Health (e.g. Jarrett, 2013; Maheu, Pulier, McMenamin, & Posen, 2012) for purposes that range from aid in diagnostic to “tele-counselling” to the design of psychoeducational environments for therapy and/or specific skill learning (e.g. Lane, Hays, Core, & Auerbach, 2013).

Two decades ago virtual reality (VR) opened new possibilities for psychological intervention with the generation of virtual scenarios for the desensitization treatment of people suffering from a variety of phobias, such as flying, open spaces or spiders (Glantz, Durlach, Barnett, & Aviles, 1996; North, North, & Coble, 1997; Rothbaum, Hodges, Watson, et al., 1995, 1996), a trend that continues to this day with the implementation of increasingly realistic VR scenarious (e.g. Shiban et al., 2017). But the scope of interventions with VR has widened somewhat with their incorporation into mobile devices, gaming and distance communication technology. The creation of online virtual worlds where people act and interact assuming the role of a customized avatar, such as Second Life (url-SecondLife), also provided a venue for research in Psychology, especially behavioural research (Jarrett, 2009). Virtual humans are being increasingly incorporated into interventions in Psychology, including: the assessment of emotion and eating disorders (Gaggioli, Mantovani, Castelnuovo, Wiederhold, & Riva, 2003), the therapy of eating disorders (Gutiérrez-Maldonado, Ferrer-García, Dakanalis, & Riva, 2017), schizophrenic hallucinations (Jarrett, 2013) and exposure-based treatment of phobias (e.g. Baus & Bouchard, 2014; Haworth, Baljko, & Faloutsos, 2012).

The therapy of social phobia has caught our interest and we have been developing over the last five years VR solutions to enable both therapist-conducted and programmed sessions and self-help simulations (Cláudio, Carmo, Pinheiro, & Esteves, 2013; Cláudio, Gaspar, Lopes, & Carmo, 2014; Cláudio, Carmo, Gaspar, & Teixeira, 2015a; Cláudio, Carmo, Pinto, Cavaco, Guerreiro, 2015b).

In this chapter we describe the rational and the developmental stages of an application that was originally designed to interact with people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia – a human condition characterized by intense anxiety when the individual faces or anticipates public performance (APA, 2013). The application has a much wider scope of uses – a topic we will discuss towards the end of the chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Fear of Public Speaking: This is a form of social anxiety disorder people have whereby fear is focused mostly on performance in the context of public speaking. It may co-occur with other problems as well, such as in people who stutter.

Virtual Reality: Virtual reality is a technology that enables the creation of lifelike scenarios and characters in a computer and the simulation of presence for a user that feels as if he/she is interacting with real people in a real place.

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): This is a type of psychotherapy that is focused on modifying cognitive biases and restructuring behavior patterns (for example learning to face one’s fears), which has been demonstrated to be effective in a wide range of problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, among other problems.

Virtual Reality in Exposure Therapy (VRET): Because of its extraordinary potential to simulate reality, Virtual reality became a useful tool to replace in vivo (real life) exposure in the therapy of phobias and other disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): A trait characterized by intense fear of finding oneself in situations where one is observed and possibly scrutinized by others. The individuals with this form of anxiety dread negative evaluations and are biased towards perceiving such evaluations.

Nonverbal Behaviour Research: A cross-disciplinary field of Psychology and Anthropology that is focused on nonverbal behaviour expression, comprising facial and vocal expression, posture, gait and gestures.

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