Will “live” coaches and therapists be replaced by online avatars using interactive technology? Will creative inventors recognize the preference of younger people to use their smartphones and tablets for all of their social interactions? There are clear signs we are already moving in that direction.
Due to the enormous diffusion of the Internet, telepsychology and telehealth in general, have become accepted and validated methods for the treatment of many different health care concerns. The introduction of the Web 2.0 has facilitated the development of new forms of collaborative interaction between multiple users based on 3-D virtual worlds.
Already, the use of emails, Podcasting, chat rooms, videoconferencing and texting are being adapted to therapeutic use. And with advances in gaming technology we could see avatar therapy and coaching allowing clients to express fantasies, transferences and projections in a therapeutic context and behavioral change, goal achievement and relationship improvement in a coaching context. And some people may feel more comfortable in a virtual environment rather than a real environment.
Max Celko a researcher at the Hybrid Reality Institute cites the fact that mental health and self-improvement services are increasingly accessible via mobile apps. The newest of these apps integrates Artificial Intelligence capabilities similar to apple’s virtual assistant, SIRI. Celko argues “these intelligent systems will make our devices come to life taking on new functions as our personal virtual psychotherapist or life coach.”
Celko says that with further advances in technology, Artificial Intelligence it may become possible to have AI systems possess emotion sensing capabilities, enabling them to detect user’s emotions and intents. “Interacting with ‘humanized technology’ in the context of therapy and coaching will turn our devices into ‘identity accessories’: they will become tools to actively sculpt our behaviors and identify,” Celko contends. As virtual system for coaching and therapy expand, concerns over issues of data privacy and the qualifications/certifications of virtual experts will also need to be addressed.
A significant demand for self-growth coaching and psychotherapy has stimulated the creation of digital services in the marketplace. An example is Mindbloom, which is designed on a gaming platform. Users can connect with each other to modify behaviors, attain goals and be more successful., and users are also able to send motivational messages and compare their progress. In essence, Mindfbloom “crowdsources” life coaching services from one’s group of friends.
The marketplace is already infused with businesses aimed at taking advantage of this virtual reality trend:
- Virtual Therapy Connect provides utilizing our own proprietary HIPAA compliant web-based communications platform that enables therapists to connect from their Virtual Therapy Connect Online Office with clients for secure video therapy sessions and secure real-time online text chat sessions;
- Talk To An Expert which provides therapist, counselor, coach, consultant, trainer, services online, ;
- The Online Therapy Institute which offers training and consultancy to mental health practitioners, coaches and organizations worldwide who have an interest in using technology to deliver services;
- The Virtual Reality Medical Center which uses virtual reality exposure therapy (3-dimensional computer simulation) in combination with physiological monitoring and feedback to treat panic and anxiety disorders; the Virtually Better Clinic in Atlanta providing an after care option of treatment using Second Life, the popular virtual world program;
- Mobiliyze, a digital device app developed by Northwestern’s School of Medicine, which monitors a person’s location and social interactions and alerts them of signs of depression;
- MoodKit, an app developed by clinical psychologist, helps the user identify and change unhealthy thoughts and chart the user’s state of mind; SimSensei, an online virtual therapist developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has an animated avatar which asks the user questions while analyzing non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions to help diagnose anxiety;
- A virtual coach “Shelley,” developed by Healthwise, a non-profit that designs corporate patient education materials, uses conversations to help the user make decisions and change behavior;
- Skip Rizzo and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Clinical VR Research Group have projects using virtual reality aimed at psychological disorders, PTSD, pain, cognitive assessment, rehabilitation and virtual patient clinical training; and
- Virtual Life Coach, which provides coaching in a virtual environment.
The biggest question, of course, is how effective are virtual coaches or therapists? Here’s some research that may help to answer that question.
Cristina Botell and her colleagues at the Universitat de Valencia in Spain published a research study in the journal Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience examining the efficacy of using virtual reality in psychotherapy. They concluded: “Compared to the ‘traditional’ treatments, VR has many advantages (eg., it is a protected environment for the patient, he/she can re-experience many times the feared situation, etc.).”.
Alessandra Gorini and her colleagues published a research report in the Journal of Medial Internet Research on the use of virtual reality in therapy. They concluded: “We suggest that compared with conventional telehealth applications such as emails, chat, and videoconferences, the interaction between real and 3-D virtual worlds may convey greater feelings of presence, facilitate the clinical communication process, positively influence group processes and cohesiveness in group-based therapies, and foster higher levels of interpersonal trust between therapists and patients.”
In a study by Youjeong Kim and S. Shyam Sundar and published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, the authors argued that “user-created self-reflecting avatars made salient different mental images of their bodies based on whether they customized their avatars to look like their actual or ideal selves, and consequently influenced their perceptions toward their physical body” with positive consequences participants health outcomes.”
A study by the Center for Connected Health found overweight participants who used an animated, virtual coach lost significantly more weight than participants who had no virtual coach. And according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, those using a virtual coach in an exercise regime over a 12 week period maintained their exercise regimen, while those without a virtual coach saw their exercise levels drop over 14%. Co-author of the study, Timothy Bickmore, argues virtual coaches have a role in health and wellness.
A study by clinical researchers at the University of Zurich looked at whether online psychology and conventional face-to-face therapy are equally effective. The results for online therapy even exceeded their expectations. They concluded: “in the medium term, online psychotherapy even yields better results. Our study is evidence that psychotherapeutic services on the internet are an effective supplement to conventional therapeutic care.”
A study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that real change in patients came from collaborative discussion or “motivational interviewing.” Instead of the a therapist diagnosing and telling the patient what medication or treatment to take the therapist asks what changes and goals the patient is willing to make. This may account for the growing popularity of coaching, where the focus is predominantly on the client taking responsibility for action.
Clearly, the appeal and demand for self-improvement beyond therapeutic services for disorders and self-monitoring products is here, and digital tools can be a valuable supplement to face-to-face traditional sources. But one has to wonder, with the advances in digital technology and gaming, whether your coach or therapist of the future will be an avatar, talking to your avatar.