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Credit: Courtesy of Virtro

A character from a Virtro simulation that trains and assesses students on correct use of personal protective equipment

In response to the pandemic, Vancouver-based Virtro has created training simulations for care workers—featuring fully conversational AI characters with distinct personalities

Virtro Entertainment knew what to do when COVID-19 struck.

Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, the Vancouver-based company had spent the previous year or so developing a virtual reality platform that lets users train for a task or job by conversing with a 3D character. Don a VR headset, and you can do things like learn the hazards of a trade or prepare to work in customer service—coached, guided or accompanied by a Virtual Human that asks and answers questions. Virtro has also deployed the same technology to help people master a new language.

The company quickly pivoted this spring when it realized how many team members have parents and siblings working at health-care facilities, says co-founder and president Lee Brighton. “Everyone immediately was, Hey, we have to turn across and hit this hard.”

Virtro responded with VR training and assessment simulations for people studying to be aides in long-term-care homes and other settings. The first module: putting on and removing personal protective equipment (PPE). As Brighton points out, postsecondary institutions moved core classroom materials online during the pandemic, but the closure of training labs left nowhere for students to practise their skills. “There was a chronic shortage of PPE when everyone was trying to practise at the outset,” she adds. “And in a lot of cases, it didn’t go away.”

Mirroring what typically happens in the real world, the PPE simulation has users play the role of spotter, says Brighton, who launched Virtro in 2016 with her partner, CEO Jordan Brighton. “You’re training, and then you’re assessing the competency of a Virtual Human putting [PPE] on. In actual fact, what you’re doing is we’re training you and we’re checking your competency to know how well you did the steps.”

Besides offering an objective assessment that shows how a student is progressing, the simulation is replayable, so you can practise anywhere at any time. Access to VR is relatively affordable now, too. “This not an expensive tool anymore,” Brighton says, holding up an Oculus Quest headset that sells for $400 at Best Buy.

The first customer for the PPE simulation was the Victoria State Government in Brighton’s native Australia. When that country’s second wave of COVID prompted travel restrictions, the Victoria government used it to remotely assess students who had completed e-learning at Monash University to become care aides. “They would move into doing the actual experience, and all the time in the background, we were using AI analytics to assess their competency,” Brighton says. That information went back to Monash, which shared it with government officials, giving them a clear picture of how effectively all staff were trained.

More than just a chatbot

Brighton compares Virtual Humans to the characters in animated films, each of which has its own personality, backstory and way of interacting with experience. To give its creations a dialogue and skill set, Virtro uses machine learning to train them in specific content—for example, genetics or astrophysics. “They’re not just conversational chatbots,” Brighton says. “They actually have personality and emotion, and they have different ways that they’ll say things.”

To that end, when Virtro launched its product Down Under, it reflected what you’d see in health-care facilities there by giving the characters Australian accents and representing a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds, Brighton explains. “We had to get the accents all working and make sure that the Virtual Humans would understand the diversity of accents they would be hearing.” The company, which is aiming for a full launch of the simulation early next year, plans to take a similar approach with the Canadian version.

Asked how Virtro builds cultural differences into its Virtual Humans, Brighton says the process is quite organic. The 53 employees at the company, which emphasizes diversity and inclusion, were born in 27 different countries and speak a combined 32 languages. Members of various teams assess the AI characters, Brighton says. “If they see something that isn’t right from any direction—whether it’s the look, the name, the accent, how that person is interacting—they’re empowered to speak up.”

Getting past the shock factor

When it comes to other VR training simulations for long-term-care workers, Brighton cites scenarios like feeding a patient or removing and replacing dentures. Those jobs usually call for an initial conversation before the worker follows through. “When you think about it, caring for the elderly is all about communication—and that’s why we focus so much time and attention on that—and it’s about physically helping them.”

Brighton thinks Virtual Humans can also help learners get past the shock factor. Let’s say you’re a 21-year-old woman tasked with bathing a 75-year-old man from a conservative corner of the world who has mild dementia. “How am I going to practise that?” asks Brighton, noting that even training labs typically use a plastic mannequin. 

Virtro lets you have those kinds of culturally sensitive encounters and communications. “I can simulate all of that in a 3D world; I can have a person in there,” Brighton says. “Your brain, once you’re put into a simulation like that, is smart and stupid all at the same time. So it kicks in with believing and acting like you’re in that situation.”

Looking beyond the pandemic, Canada must improve training and assessment of workers who will look after its growing number of elderly residents, Brighton argues. Otherwise, we run the risk of sending them into care facilities without the chance to practise, she says. “We put people into these situations, but there’s so much more we could do in helping them be better prepared.”