As of October 2022, The Children’s Trust $1.2 million Innovation Fund is piloting cutting-edge projects that will directly benefit children and families in Miami-Dade County. The Mailman Center for Child Development, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, is one of the 17 sites chosen for funding in the collaborative enterprise.
The $90,000 awarded to the Mailman Center will strengthen the effectiveness of programmatic strategies with new ideas, partnerships, and advancements—and continue its more than two decades-long cooperative relationship with the trust.
“There is no shortage of innovation in Miami-Dade, and the trust supports these new ideas and initiatives,” said James Haj, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust. “There are many needs in our community, and it is essential that new strategies and ideas are able to disrupt the status quo to meet those needs.”
The Mailman Center will use the grant to develop a new way to use virtual reality to teach caregivers, professionals, and paraprofessionals how to manage children’s strong emotions. Leading the initiative will be Jason Jent, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics, and Cristina del Busto, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Mailman Center. Mei-Ling Shyu, Ph.D., former professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Miami College of Engineering, will lead the technological development of the project from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“This is such an exciting opportunity for collaboration on a product that will help our community access much-needed resources and support child mental health at this time,” Dr. Jent said. “Our goal would be to ensure that this technology remains a free resource for providers and caregivers who reside in Miami-Dade County to enhance training opportunities for child mental health.”
Drs. Jent and del Busto are no strangers to virtual reality: Both have expertise in technology-based interventions for young children’s disruptive behaviors and anxiety disorders. They have collaborated on past projects, such as developing a virtual reality (VR) simulation prototype for child tantrum behaviors and building successful technology-based solutions related to children’s emotions and behaviors.
The first steps in development will involve Drs. Jent and del Busto creating storyboard situations using VR and artificial intelligence (AI). Here, a virtual child avatar will be made with the ability to behave vividly and interact with users in real time.
“The avatar will change their emotions based on the users’ responses using verbal and facial interactions,” Dr. Jent said. “This will show how behaviors can affect children negatively and positively, while allowing for real-time feedback and training to see the most effective methods in dealing with such situations.”
The project will include collaboration not only with engineers but also with psychologists, to ensure that the simulations feel as close to real-life scenarios as possible. Once the simulations are developed, they will be loaded into VR headsets, where the technology will be tested by parents and other adults who regularly interact with children.
On the engineering side of the project, Dr. Shyu and her team will focus on the actual creation of the virtual child avatar in the VR environment. This avatar will be programmed to behave realistically and interact instantly with users. Dr. Shyu will apply her expertise in utilizing VR for personnel training and education, along with her knowledge of behavioral data analysis in AI/machine learning techniques.
The avatar’s behaviors will be fully automated and controlled by an expert system, and it will interact with users based on multimodal user behavior data analysis. Currently there are some limitations in computing resources available on the VR devices, as advanced AI models are required to recognize emotion, language, and behaviors to enable real-time user interaction. However, Dr. Shyu and her engineering team are ready to take on this challenge.
“I am looking forward to implementing this approach using AI technologies to enable a virtual avatar to interact with users in real time,” Dr. Shyu said. “We will be pioneering a new view of how people can interact with computers and benefit from the current advances in AI and AR/VR technologies.”
The VR project will take about six months to develop with simulations in English and Spanish, and an additional six months to test how well the simulations work.
“We’re just really excited to add to the menu of behavioral health resources for parents and other adults who regularly interact with children,” Dr. Jent said. “The team is hopeful that this VR simulation will help adults interact more effectively with children in their daily lives.”