WASHINGTON– Scientists are using virtual online worlds to improve the flow of information and support to servicemembers returning from deployments.

Jacquelyn Morie of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies discussed the “Transitional Online Post-deployment Soldier Support in Virtual Worlds” project during a July 29 webcast of “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” on Pentagon Web radio.

Also known as “Coming Home,” the project will create a space within Second Life — a 3-D online virtual community — dedicated to providing camaraderie, support and resources for returning soldiers trying to reintegrate into civilian life.

“Second Life is unique because it allows users to build things and own the things they build,” Morie said. “It has a huge range; whatever people can imagine and dream, they can build there. You’re represented by a 3-D avatar, so you can represent yourself however you feel is appropriate for who you are.”

The project incorporates immersive games, virtual world expertise and virtual human intelligence. Coming Home will be populated with artificial, intelligence-driven virtual characters that can aid veterans in finding support and therapies.

“You can think of it as the VFW hall of the 21st century,” Morie explained. “Most veterans, when they come back, are not collocated into neighborhoods the way people were in World War II. So this gives people a chance to be together, even if they’re widely dispersed.”

Morie’s research team also is developing an online veterans center that focuses on social activities and complementary and alternative medical interventions that can help prevent stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re working with the Mindfulness Center in San Diego, and they’ll be running classes in Second Life in our land with veterans,” Morie said. “We’ll see how the veterans respond to that and how the facilitators work.”

Morie said that the center also will create artificial, intelligence-based avatars that will populate Second Life’s veterans’ center.

The institute is widely known for its research on “virtual humans,” realistic, online characters that can converse, understand, reason, and even exhibit emotions. These virtual humans will provide services for users that otherwise might require a real person to be logged into Second Life and available at all times.

“We have virtual humans you can negotiate with, we have virtual humans that serve as patients to therapists in training, and we have virtual humans with emotional models that can be very defensive,” Morie said. “Part of the research in the veterans’ center is to take those virtual humans — their intelligence — and put them into avatars that can be helpers in the virtual space.”

Much of what the institute does in its work is to merge cutting-edge technology with social and psychological study. The institute’s artificial intelligence “agents” are being developed for use in the Army as coaches or teachers in a classroom setting, Morie said, as well as in the Second Life environment.

“If we can supplement [simulation or real-life exercises] with continued training within a virtual space, we’re offering something of a lot more value,” Morie said.

In the end, the institute’s goal in Second Life is to create an environment for veterans to network and find information and assistance when dealing with the stresses of returning from deployment, she said.

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