All medical, paramedical and social workers once started as students. Through experience they have become the professionals they now are. Traditionally always the combination between theoretical knowledge and practical application of that knowledge has been sought. At first students will practice on peers and through roleplaying, later on they will join the fieldwork under supervision of their teachers and/or fully skilled colleagues. Training the technical theoretical knowledge is usually provided for in the curricula. The evenly important interpersonal communication skills are of course also practised. Many students however will eventually develop their ‘soft skills’ in the following years of real life practice. But how wonderful would it be if students could already train their skills through practice with real patients in real settings during their studies?
VR-training for improving soft skills in context
Ethical considerations can make it unfit to practice soft-skills on real clients or patients. Often the solution is sought in practising with close-by-representatives. For instance through role playing with peers, simulation patients or training actors. Although helpful, students may find practising their soft-skills on peers socially unsafe or embarrassing. Training actors are very helpful, though have limitations as well. Because of the costs involved they are normally not deployed on an individual scale and often in an artificial environment like a classroom. In addition to that actors are human. Humans are not very good at repeating the same behaviour consistently over and over again. In the assessment of students’ soft skills this may lead to incomparable challenge and unequal testing.
Though what may be difficult for a human being, is just the thing computers are very good at; the exact repetition of actions. But how can a computer simulate natural human behaviour? Especially when it is communication you want to practise with a computer it is essential that the interactions feel like a real interaction with a human being, that can respond to your verbal as well as non-verbal signs.
”How wonderful would it be if students could already train their skills through practice with real patients in real settings during their studies?
Virtual Reality may offer a solution for these problems. In a co-creation project HAN iXperium Health and The Simulation Crew developed a VR based training tool to assist in practicing communication skills for students in social and health studies. In this training students have to carry out an intake interview with a virtual client named ‘Max’. Intake interviews are seen as a commonly shared activity amongst healthcare professionals regardless their specialization. The application measures the quality of the interaction between Max and the student. The student has to follow the correct procedure of an intake interview ánd take enough action to make actual social contact with Max. Just like in a normal conversation students have to balance the eye-contact with Max. They have to elaborate on the things Max shares with them and summarize to let him feel heard. Max will respond verbally and non-verbally to the things they do or don’t do.
So how does this work in the educational setting? In fact the application of the tool is threefold. The main goal is to give student more opportunities to practice their soft-skills on an individual basis. Students can practise as long and as often as they want to; the only condition is the availability of a VR Headset. Secondly the tool provides teachers and students a tool for self-management since the students’ progress can be monitored. When recordings are shared with teachers they can give targeted feedback and fine-tune their teachings to the individual needs. And finally the VR application could be enrolled as an assessment tool as well. How does that work? Well, the system logs scores on the type of response that is given in combination with head tracking data to measure the amount of nodding and eye-contact made. These scores are recalculated into a grade that summarizes the individual student performance. Important advantages of assessing through a VR simulated conversation is that for each student Max will provide the same challenge and will provide consistent feedback. The variety in verbal and non-verbal feedback Max gives is solely driven by the student’s behaviour. This makes the ‘communication challenge’ both lively as well as equitable.
What does the training look like?
The training starts in your own virtual consultation room. You have an intake interview scheduled with Max, an introvert young man. He is already sitting in the waiting room. You have to get up, out of your office to get him and invite him into your office. Don’t forget to welcome him and introduce yourself! In your office you will be seated in front of Max, sitting at your desk. On your desk is a computer screen showing some guidelines for the conversation. Your learning goal is to practice the formal steps to be taken in an intake meeting (retrieving information on personal data, housing and living, study or work, family and relationship, leisure time activities, use of medicine or drugs and the details of his health problem) and while doing this make and maintain contact with Max on a social level. If you are not succeeding to make contact, Max will timidly look away, and becomes agitated in the end. For sure he isn’t providing you with much information then. What a shame, now you will never find out what Max’s health problem is!
So how does it feel when you put on your VR headset and start the communication training? Well, it feels real. Although Max certainly is recognisable as a virtual actor, not a real person, it is pretty unnerving to interact with him. Because he sees you and responds accurately to what you say to him. And it is really Max you are interacting with, not a hidden human teacher in the background with a microphone prompting him what to say. Speech-recognition allows you to really talk to Max. And if you are neglecting him, for instance because you are distracted by the decorations in your office, he will let you know. So will he if you are focused on your computer screen too much. Pretty nerve-racking right? Or better said: feels pretty much like the real thing. Getting curious and want to discover for yourself what Max will tell you?
HAN Virtual Client is an example of Iva; a platform for VR Communication Training. Natural speech recognition, non-verbal input, pose and gesture detection, AI controlled virtual humans; state of the art technology with the sole purpose of creating immersive conversations, to effectively train communication skills. Meet Iva.