More than 70 million people—about one percent of the world's population—stutter. One of them is Gareth Walkom, 24-year-old medical product design student at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. Walkom is developing a virtual reality program meant as a cyber practice space for stutterers, where they can speak to an avatar about everyday things. It's a futuristic therapy for a speech impediment that goes all the way back to Moses. Walkom spoke with Tonic via Google Hangout about his project.
Let's start with the basics: What exactly do you see when you put on the headset?
Basically, the individual will wear the headset, where they will see a virtual environment. This environment would contain an avatar, which the individual is to talk to. This avatar will be very realistic and also animated. As the individual is talking to the avatar, their gaze behaviors are being monitored. For example, if someone who stutters looks away from the avatar during the moment of a stutter, they will be told this. The whole purpose of this system is to prepare the individual for anxiety-provoking real-life situations.
So you just talk to the avatar about whatever you want?
The individual will be given a topic to talk about—his or her favorite holiday, what they did over the weekend, their job, and so on.
And how realistic is this room?
I've yet to design the scene, as the headset and technology is so new—it was only released a few weeks ago. However, the scene that I designed last year was a lecture theater which had an animated audience.
And the idea is that interacting with the avatar is less intimidating than interacting with people? Or provides feedback that people are too polite to provide?
Not so much. The virtual environment creates a totally safe environment for those who use it, as the system and headset can be stopped and removed at any given time. On top of the method of exposure therapy being totally safe, it also allows the individual to be fully immersed into the environment, which gives the feeling of a real-life situation. This will then prepare the individual for a real-life situation, where they can transfer those skills used within the virtual reality exposure therapy to a situation in real life. Stopping an anxiety-provoking real-life situation is definitely not easy at all.
How did you first see the potential of virtual reality for this therapeutic purpose?
The idea was first suggested to me from my previous supervisor, professor David Brown, who explained how my interest of using technology to benefit those who stutter could definitely be used within a VR public speaking environment. At the time, I did not realize the potential the research could have to benefit those who need it the most.
I understand that you've have had some issues with stuttering yourself. How did that inform this project?
I've stuttered since the age of six, and it has affected me so much throughout my life. From the fear of talking to someone I don't know to trying to say my name. As I know firsthand how unbearable a stutter can sometimes be, I wanted to help people like myself to control their stutter. The personal aspect of my research is what motivates me the most to develop a system which can benefit those who stutter. The system could also be used for other speech and anxiety disorders too, which totally opens how broad virtual reality exposure therapy can go.
Are there similar technology therapies you looked at when developing this project?
I first considered developing a mobile application, which would assist people who stutter in saying a word they are stuck on. For example, if they always struggle saying their name, they could type in their name, and the mobile application would say it for them. (Words could also be saved as favorites.) However, after a lot of research, I found the app would be seen by speech and language therapists as an avoidance technique.
I take it you have used the program you invented. Has it been helpful in your day-to-day life?
I haven't actually used it on myself, as I would need to train someone else to test the system on me.
Has anyone tried it? If so, what's been the feedback?
Yes, I tested the lecture theater scene I created on a self-help stuttering group last year. [The] results showed decreased levels of anxiety and improved speech over repeated sessions for some participants. A lot of them liked the idea a lot and were interested in using it more. They also said the scene and avatars felt very realistic, as if they were actually there.
What do the avatars look like? Are you trying to come up with a face that emanates compassion or patience?
The avatar looks very realistic and can be animated to change their facial features. This is something which can be done further if other difficulties are wanted, where anxiety is intendedly provoked greater. The avatars can be any gender, age, or race. I intend to randomly generate a different avatar for each session in my research this year. This is to ensure the results aren't confused with the individual becoming adapted to the scene, as opposed to reducing their anxiety and improving their speech.
Any other new adaptations or features to the program you are currently working on?
Not currently. I'm mainly focusing on the inclusion of eye-tracking this year. The main limitation to my research last year was that the eyes were covered by the VR headset—observing the individuals eyes is very important in stuttering therapy. However, with the headset I am now using, this should eliminate this limitation. I'm hoping to take my research to a PhD this year, but I am still searching for funding.