Veterans are often reluctant to seek therapy for service-related conditions, but rather than write them off, scientists are creating a virtual online community where servicemembers can find the camaraderie and resources to ease their return to civilian life.
The "Transitional Online Post-deployment Soldier Support in Virtual Worlds" created by the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) will be ensconced within a corner of the virtual landscape of Second Life, a popular online 3D grid where people interact through avatars (PDF).
Also known as Coming Home, this world will contain three main areas: one for social activities, one for competitive and collaborative gaming, and one for resources. The resources area will be staffed by artificial intelligence-driven virtual characters available 24-7 to steer veterans to the appropriate support and therapies.
Soldiers often take more than six months after returning home to self-report mental health concerns, according to studies by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Army Research Institute.
ICT is betting the anonymity of an online world accessible from the privacy of a home computer will bring many veterans out of their shells and make them more inclined to participate and obtain help.
"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," Jacquelyn Morie of ICT said in an interview with the American Forces Press Service. "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."
Another way to attract users is the virtual design. The scientists wanted to come up with an inviting environment, something as far removed from the mean streets of Iraq as possible. The result is Chicoma Lodge, a pseudo Western ski lodge, modeled on an inn on Mackinac Island, Mich.
"You can think of it as the VFW hall of the 21st century," Morie said. "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."
The parent company of Second Life, Lindens Labs, has provided ICT with an open-source version of their program. Coming Home will be restricted to registered veterans. Mainstream Second Lifers will have to build their own ski lodge.