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Surprising Science

Virtual Coaching For The Conversationally Challenged

MIT developers have created a system that uses a computer-generated face and specialized software to help people with social phobias and others practice their interpersonal skills.

What’s the Latest Development?

A team of developers at the MIT Media Lab has created a software system, My Automated Conversation Coach (MACH), that people can use in the privacy of their homes to practice their conversational skills. The system uses the computer’s webcam to note facial expressions, head movements, and eye contact, and it uses the microphone to capture many different details about the user’s voice, including pitch, speed, and what words they use. Even better, it provides feedback, which team leader M. Ehsan Hoque says is more effective than a human’s “because it’s objective.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 15 million American adults struggle with social phobias, among them public speaking. A conversation simulator like MACH could allow these people to overcome their fears. Tests involving MIT juniors who participated in two separate simulated job interviews showed that those who practiced with MACH in between the interviews and received detailed feedback showed “statistically significant improvement” in their performance. A video describing the system noted that it could also be used to practice speaking different languages as well as how to perform on a date.

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