Training simulations have been an important application of animation technology for years. Virtual reality programs help pilots, doctors, and corporate workers sharpen their skills by keeping the “error” part of trial-and-error learning out of the real world. But what if it could expand into other areas, like helping kids develop social skills?
Assuming you read the title of this article, you already know the answer.
SiLAS (Socially Interactive Learning Avatar Software) is a company founded by Chris Dudick. He worked in entertainment for a couple years, acting on the production crew for both Codename; Kids Next Door and Kappa Mikey. In 2007 though, he opened Small Factory Productions, a production and technology studio focused on children. Eight years later, he founded SiLAS, and in 2017 the company received a grant of over $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop their product.
But what is this product? Christopher Dudick and Bernadette Mullen, an expert in special education, showed off the technology at a TEDx event. The full clip can seen below. In short, the application acts like a video game. Users can create an avatar any way they may like, and then interact with another user. By using a controller, they can guide their avatar to face certain directions or display certain emotions. The use of a microphone allows them to speak with their own voice, and the lips of the avatar move in time.
Near the end of the clip, Dudick and Mullen show a short film made by two kids using SiLAS for Social Skills. Their avatars act out a brief argument over what they should do that day, eventually coming to a realization that they need to take turns deciding their activities. Then after that, Dudick and Mullen share comments from parents whose kids have had positive learning experiences from the software - it has already helped them articulate their feelings better, and even taught them how to make friends more easily.
SiLAS’ software is now in over thirty school districts across seven states. The success of SiLAS shows how powerful animation is as a tool. By creating an interface its easier for kids, especially children with special needs, to practice some of the most vital skills a person can have. Whatever happens in the virtual world, they can then return to the real world with concrete results.
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