Smart digital technologies are now being used to create virtual mental health counsellors that provide information to help people monitor and improve their psychological state.

[Netexplo] La santé psychologique inspire les chercheurs du domaine technologique

As the ‘connected objects’ trend and the Quantified Self movement continue unabated, a great deal of research is now being done into device-users’ health. Technologies are now emerging to support people in their quest not only for physical well-being but also mental health.  The basic idea is not to entirely replace mental healthcare practitioners, but to create tools for analysing users’ behaviour as an indication of their psychological state and thus providing support for the treatment process. This trend was evident at Netexplo 2014, which took place in Paris on 26-28 March, where the winning innovations included the US-based project SimSensei to create a software-based virtual psychological counsellor, and a mobile app designed by German researchers at Soma Analytics to help employers anticipate the likelihood of employee burn-out.

The virtual counsellor

The Soma Analytics mobile app provides a 21-day programme to help company employees improve their mental resilience and become aware of the risks of anxiety and burn-out. “The advantage of our system is that you don’t need a special device to use it, and there is thus no extra cost,” underlined Soma Analytics CEO Johann Huber. Among other behaviours, the app monitors sleep quality by capturing the user’s movements during the night and applying an algorithm which has been “approved by the scientific community,” promises Huber. Following the behavioural analysis, the individual employee can be given personal advice and the employer provided with suggestions on how to help to create and maintain a working environment conducive to employees’ psychological well-being. The data gathered can also serve as input to consultations with a mental health practitioner if need be. The basic aim is to anticipate and head off any problems that are brewing, as is also the case with the SimSensei project running at the University of Southern California. This is a virtual interview system using Microsoft’s Kinect technology to analyse the interviewee’s body language, and give responses through the avatar of a virtual psychologist. The system records facial expressions, gestures, breathing patterns, and ways of talking so as to “identify behavioural indicators that reveal the psychological distress which is common to most types of depression,” explained Louis-Philippe Morency, one of the Principal Investigators on the project.

Changing attitudes to virtual counselling

As this type of application and virtual counsellor are being developed, human attitudes appear to be adapting to these digital tools. “We recently published a paper demonstrating that people fear being judged by a virtual human less than when they interact with a real person,” revealed Morency. However, when we are talking about behavioural data relating to a person’s psychological state, it is inevitable that questions of confidentiality will arise. With this in mind, the SimSensei team is “progressing with the software development, but at the same time actively taking confidentiality issues into account,” stressed Louis-Philippe Morency.

By Eliane HONG