A Live Animation Adventure with Interactive Avatars

By Enid Webb – Silver Linings Education Services
My personal story about working with Invirtua


The little autistic boy was normally not interested in interacting with his therapist. He asked her if there were Legos. The answer was no. He immediately lapsed back into sullen withdrawal.

Suddenly, a friendly cartoon character appeared on a monitor and began talking to the little boy, responding to the boy’s actions, and capturing his attention one hundred percent – like nobody else had been able to do. At that moment, everyone in the room realized that the fields of speech language pathology, and the treatment of autism, were about to be transformed forever.

It was a gusty autumn afternoon as I headed to the home office of my friend Gary Jesch in Carson City, Nevada. A serendipitous encounter at an engagement party had led to an animated discussion about our work lives, but little had I known at the time how “animated” events would literally turn.

For it turns out that this salt-of-the-earth, unassuming gentleman is a maverick and a visionary who, for twenty years, has been working in the field of live performance animation – like “Avatar,” only LIVE live, as in, you get to interact with the cartoon character in real time because the puppeteer is in another room controlling him/her and watching YOU through a camera.

Through trade shows and company presentations all over the world during the course of the past two decades, Gary and his clients have seen firsthand that interacting with cartoon characters is not only a way to instantly arouse potential customers’ interest, but that it is also less intimidating for a lot of people, and therefore has a higher success rate than regular interactions with live people.

This increased engagement could not be truer than for children – especially children with any kind of obstacles to regular social interaction, such as autistic children. This technology would be able to offer a lot more to children and adults on the autism spectrum than merely novelty.

As I walked into the charming and totally-normal-looking home of Gary and his wife Sue, I was given a glass of water and discussed pleasantries in the kitchen for a bit. Then, Gary invited me to come see his work.

We walked three steps into the room behind the kitchen. I turned my head. A sweet young boy was looking at me and shifting from side to side… from inside a screen. A live animation adventure had begun. Around Gary’s desk, there were lights and equipment designed for international video conferences. The feeling that I had walked into a laboratory more than an office invaded me. The virtual character on the screen looking at me made me feel less like I was watching a cartoon movie, and more like I was peering inside the cyber-home of an avatar awaiting life to be breathed into it.

Gary sat down at his laptop, chose a character out of a selection of characters of various ages and genders, put on a simple headset with a microphone, and superimposed onto a digital tablet a grid on a plastic sheet with boxes saying things like “angry,” “sad,” “happy,” “wave,” “head,” “arms,” and so on. Then, he started talking and, as he did, the character’s mouth moved just has his mouth moved. He showed me how moving the pen up and down inside each of the boxes intensified the action – the more you moved the pen up in the “sad” box, the sadder the character’s facial expression became. In the head box, you could move the head all around with the pen.

I was shown various characters, each sharing a certain amount of common movement and emotion possibilities, but also containing features specific to that character – including “Baby G,” who impressed me (and apparently a host of YouTube internauts) with his rendition of “Gangnam Style”! We spent three magical hours talking and playing with the characters. I was sold.

With only a few test runs, the two therapists currently working with Gary and his Interactive 3D Animation Systems, have already seen marked improvements in the children, who are also rewarded with the opportunity to express themselves THROUGH the characters as the actual puppeteers.

The possibility of controlling and repeating the actions of cartoon characters reinforces the links between emotions and facial expressions in the kids’ minds. It’s like taking life and rewinding it like a movie again and again, slowing it down to our own pace, until we “GET it”, and only THEN moving on, or like reading a passage out of a book several times until we understand it and then continuing with the story.

In real life (and even in traditional, formal schooling), we don’t really get the chance to rewind and repeat often, if ever. Actions, words, expressions, and concepts fly by and if we are not wired to understand them on the fly from the get-go, the train has left the station and we are not on it, nor can we ever hope to catch up by running after it.

We fall perpetually more and more behind. This technology gives kids and even grown-ups a fighting chance to catch up by slowing the learning to their pace. After coming to understand social cues that were previously veiled in mystery, users of this system can take what they have learned with the cartoons and apply it to the real world. It is a thing of beauty. And it is already working.

CHOPS Live Animation and Invirtua Avatar Adventures are spearheading the application of this technology into the mental health field, where it may be cutting-edge methodology and, eventually, could even become the standard. The program is in its pilot stage and looking for funding to make the technology affordable and accessible for all who could benefit from it – possibly even branching out into platforms such as the Xbox for home use.

Also needed are speech language pathologists and others who would be interested in testing out the technology with their patients. Other potential applications could include assisting police detectives with interviews of child victims of crime. Having assisted in many child victim interviews over the course of the past six years myself as an interpreter-translator, I am intrigued by the possibility.

Gary welcomes direct contact and would be glad to set up demonstrations of the animation technology, which over the years has become extremely portable and convenient. This technology will undoubtedly be huge and I am honored to have actually gotten to spend three hours of one-on-one time with the founder and CEO in his own home just chatting and brainstorming about it on a casual autumn afternoon.

Enid Webb can be reached in Incline Village, NV via the above website. She currently serves on the Invirtua Board of Advisors.

For more information about Invirtua Avatar Adventures, visit this page – Individual Sessions

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