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Eminent professor to evaluate avatar-based counselling software

Crucial analysis to aid the development of a new avatar based software to help young people deal with psychological issues will be carried out by a University of Roehampton counselling expert.

Posted: 23 February 2015

image for news story Eminent professor to evaluate avatar-based counselling software
Professor Mick Cooper, who will be evaluating the avatar therapy software

Professor Mick Cooper, one of the UK’s foremost academics in psychology and counselling research, has been appointed by software company ProReal Ltd to evaluate the use of the of its software with young people. The company has been awarded Phase two funding of £970,000 by NHS England’s Small Business Research Initiative Healthcare.

ProReal has developed an immersive, avatar-based virtual world software platform which helps users put thoughts and feelings into pictures. ProReal enables clients to create a visual representation of their world, and uses cameras to enable this world to be experienced from multiple perspectives. Using avatars (digital representations of people) and other features, the user can gain new insights which build stronger relationships and improve psychological well-being.

Professor Cooper leads the Centre for Research in Social and Psychological Transformation (CREST) within the Department of Psychology at the London-based university. CREST specialises in the evaluation of counselling and psychotherapy in schools and with young people.

He said: “Helping young people affected by mental health issues to explore their difficulties through an avatar-based programme could be a leap forward in understanding their actions, and a worthwhile tool for counsellors to improve the quality of support we give them.

“It would bring therapeutic support to young people via the online world, where many will be comfortable and experienced in communicating with others. This is a potentially very welcome development, but we must be sure it will work, which is why the evaluation we carry out will be key to developing the product. As professionals, we can’t afford to try new methods of support until we’re absolutely confident they are as good as they can be and will genuinely make a difference.”

Professor Cooper’s evaluation will test the outcomes of the avatar-based therapy and the aspects of it that young people find helpful or unhelpful. Interviews will be carried out with young people to ask whether they believe it is accessible and meets their needs.. Users will be questioned on whether they feel the avatar system does help them explore their thoughts and feelings, and whether this helps to build resilience and capabilities for the real world.

ProReal will be working with a number of partners including a children’s charity and NHS organisations during this stage of the pilot. The company has also established a clinical steering panel and advisory board. Professor Cooper’s co-investigator in the project will be Dr Biljana van Rijn, Faculty Head of Applied Research and Clinical Practice at Metanoia Institute.

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