Avatar shows promise as physical therapy coach

A sympathetic avatar named Molly guides physical therapy patients through their exercises in a pilot project at San Mateo Medical Center in California.

The avatar can modulate her tone of voice and facial expressions, interview patients in English or Spanish, and use the 3-D cameras of a Kinect device to guide patients through their rehabilitation.

The goal for the platform from California startup Sense.ly is to treat patients at home, using their phone, desktop, or TV, according to an article published this week in Technology Review. In another treatment scenario, it can advise a patient with a high blood-sugar reading on what to eat that day.

"We don't want to replace therapists. But in some ways, it does replace the need to have them there all the time," Paul Carlisle, the director of rehabilitation services, says of the avatar's potential.

The software not only issues red flags for things that require immediate attention, but also tracks patients' progress over time and creates a transcript of the voice interaction. The software also is being tested as it performs intake and assessment in the busy waiting room of an addiction and detox clinic in California.

Avatars were a big hit with high schoolers in a program to teach them CPR, and a previous study found medical students equally enthusiastic. But avatars increasingly are being used to help with clinical tasks, as well.

What's more, an avatar named "Gabby" was found effective in identifying preconception risks for certain sects of young women, determining their readiness for behavior change and helping them create a to-do list to lessen their risk. That avatar was designed to emulate a conversation with an empathetic clinician.

And in another case, young adults ages 18 to 25 who interacted with virtual healthcare providers and a virtual health coach to communicate their depression symptoms and receive individualized feedback showed significant improvement over the course of the three-month study.

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