On screen, the virtual character sits in a comfortable purple chair. She wears plain pants, a turquoise shirt, and a slim jacket with the sleeves rolled up past her elbows. Her short dark hair is swept to one side and her ethnicity is intentionally ambiguous, according to her developers, a team of researchers with the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies. Some of the people who have interacted with her assume she is Asian; others conclude she has a completely different ethnicity. "People have come up and said that they're so thankful we paired them with someone of their race because it helped them connect," recalls Gale Lucas, a research assistant professor at USC.
The platform, SimSensei, is designed for one-on-one sessions with individuals, and uses visual and audio feedback to tailor its responses. In one study, veterans who submitted to counseling sessions with SimSensei shared personal and mental health concerns they would have withheld from actual human therapists. The system is designed to encourage this kind of open interaction, engaging in active listening by offering affirming or comforting responses or noting when the subject pauses or hesitates—and asking why. Human therapists carry out these techniques intuitively, yet Lucas and her colleagues found the participants were still more open with the virtual platform.