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What if you didn’t go to work, but your avatar did?

What if your work commute was as fast as putting on a headset?

Jeremy Bailenson: If I could succeed in any endeavor as an academic it would be perfecting what I call the virtual handshake. And I don’t mean an actual handshake, I mean that metaphorically. Why do we go to business meetings to be with other people? Because there’s a social connection, this intimacy that when you’re in the same room it feels like you’re there with them and you can do eye contact and you can do subtle posture changes and you can have multiway conversations with sidelong glances, and it feels real. We call that social presence.

VR is not there yet. But if you think about cars: 40,000 people died in the United States last year driving and 1.3 million people worldwide died in car accidents. Think about the productivity lost by sitting in a box for an hour each way to and from work. Think about the fossil fuel that we’re burning while we commute back and forth to work. Think about the road rage. Think about the germs that you get on public transportation. I’m not claiming that we should not see people; I love social connection. What I’m saying is that there’s a subset of travel that if you think about it, why do we drive all the way to work so we can sit at a desk and pound on a computer? Maybe we only need to go two days to work. And for those meetings that are not essential we need to put those in VR.

We cannot support a planet of 11 billion people—which we’ll be at quite soon—with everybody driving and flying everywhere using fossil fuels. It’s just not going to happen. So why don’t we have networked meetings yet? And the answer is because there’s this secret sauce, this social presence that we have face-to-face that we don’t get with videoconference yet. And VR isn’t there yet. So what we need to do is to be able to track more body movements.

The bottleneck is actually not bandwidth because avatar-based communication is cheaper from a bandwidth standpoint than video. The reason is, if you’re doing an avatar-based communication all the 3D models for the avatars are stored locally on each machine. What travels over the network is the tracking data. So locally a camera detects that I smiled and then it sends over network a packet that says smile at 22 percent. And then on the other computer it then draws that smile. So you’re not sending visual information over the network. What you’re sending is very cheap information which is semantic information about movement. The bottleneck is we can’t track movements that accurately. So if you think of the commercial systems right now they track what we call 18 degrees of freedom. Your head and both hands. You can do rotation which has three and X, Y and Z which is obviously three. And so you’ve got 18 points, two hands and a head. In order to have a conversation flow we need to have subtle cheek movements and the twitch of my elbow. Everything I do communicates meaning whether I’m doing it intentionally or not. And the theory that drives this understanding of how humans interact verbally and nonverbally is called interactional synchrony, and psychologists have been studying this for decades, since the 1960s. And the idea is that conversation, it’s a very—it’s an intricate dance and when we’re in a room with people everything is so tightly choreographed. When you nod your head I change my intonation. And when she moves her elbow my knee bobs. And there’s all of these pairwise movements and that’s what makes a conversation feel special face to face. We have to track all the movements of the people in the room in a way that’s sufficient to get that synchrony across.

What if your work commute was as fast as putting on a headset? In the near future, working from home will be revolutionized—although virtual reality is not quite there yet, says Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. In order to make virtual meetings a reality, where your avatar interacts naturally with others in real time, VR developers are chasing one quality: interactional synchrony. "Psychologists have been studying this for decades, since the 1960s, and the idea is that conversation, it’s a very—it’s an intricate dance, and when we’re in a room with people everything is so tightly choreographed. When you nod your head I change my intonation. And when she moves her elbow my knee bobs. And there’s all of these pairwise movements and that’s what makes a conversation feel special face to face," says Bailenson. If VR programmers can capture this quality, it will be the end of commuting for those who want it. No more wasted productivity in bumper-to-bumper traffic, no more subway hotboxes of colds and flus, no more unnecessarily burned fossil fuels. "Maybe we only need to go two days to work. And for those meetings that are not essential, we need to put those in VR." Jeremy Bailenson is the author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do.


A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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