Fear of public speaking could be solved with virtual audience

March 16, 2018 by Rheagan Rizio, University of Southern California
A virtual audience could help a public speaker prepare for the real thing. Credit: Kian McKellar

Public speaking can heighten anyone's anxiety. Cicero, a program named after the famed Roman orator, aims to help people overcome that fear—with the help of a virtual audience.

"Public speaking is threatening to many people," said Stefan Scherer, who designed the project with Mathieu Chollet at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. "We wanted to see if we could use virtual humans to create a less threatening, more safe environment."

Cicero participants use glasses that have the effect of immersing them in the virtual world, making it as real as possible. In that world, animated avatars that look like real people are coded to react to the speaker. Feedback depends on the speaker's aptitude. If the speaker is interesting, the audience will lean forward, display facial expressions that convey engagement, nod heads, etc. If the speaker fails to engage the assembly, the audience will convey dissatisfaction by leaning back, looking disinterested, shaking their heads, etc.

Scherer, a research assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was drawn to public speaking because of its relevance and one-sided nature.

"The doesn't generally speak to you so you don't have to author responses or a conversation itself," Scherer said.

Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the ICT team's research on Cicero began in 2013. The team has created several avatars, coded by Chollet, that have about 1,000 different reactions. The plan was to code the avatars to react to nonverbal cues, such as the presenter's facial expression, their volume or body language. Ultimately, it could be a tool that transforms a user's fear of public speaking into a non-threatening, virtual game of self-improvement.

More than a virtual reality tool

Cicero isn't quite ready for commercial purposes on the open market, but Scherer and his team anticipate a wide range of uses. Their research now has broader implications, specifically for those suffering from schizophrenia.

The project could give schizophrenics a tool that enables them to improve their social interaction: an interactive . The avatar allows them to practice communication and recognize social cues in real time. It is currently used in a small trial at the San Francisco VA clinic.

"The ability to communicate in social environments often greatly influences a person's career development," Scherer said. "Cicero could help individuals thrive by providing continuous, personalized training to meet the ever-changing needs of a diverse workforce."

Explore further: Virtual reality may reduce paranoia in psychotics: study

Related Stories

Virtual reality may reduce paranoia in psychotics: study

February 9, 2018
Virtual reality-based therapy combined with standard treatment reduced paranoia and anxiety in people with psychotic disorders, scientists reported Friday.

Using virtual reality to make experiments more realistic

January 27, 2016
Avatars are all around us: they represent real people online and colonise new worlds in the movies. In science, their role has been more limited. But avatars can be extremely useful in linguistics, new research shows. Scientists ...

Recommended for you

Linguistic red flags from Facebook posts can predict future depression diagnoses

October 15, 2018
In any given year, depression affects more than 6 percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need. What if an algorithm could scan social ...

Early changes to synapse gene regulation may cause Alzheimer's disease

October 15, 2018
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, involving memory loss and a reduction in cognitive abilities. Patients with AD develop multiple abnormal protein structures in their brains that are thought to ...

Clues that suggest people are lying may be deceptive, study shows

October 12, 2018
The verbal and physical signs of lying are harder to detect than people believe, a study suggests.

Why don't we understand statistics? Fixed mindsets may be to blame

October 12, 2018
Unfavorable methods of teaching statistics in schools and universities may be to blame for people ignoring simple solutions to statistical problems, making them hard to solve. This can have serious consequences when applied ...

From 'problem child' to 'prodigy'? LSD turns 75

October 12, 2018
Lysergic acid diethylamide was labelled a "problem child" by the man who discovered its hallucinogenic properties in 1943: as it turns 75, the drug known as LSD may now be changing its image.

How to avoid raising a materialistic child

October 12, 2018
If you're a parent, you may be concerned that materialism among children has been on the rise. According to research, materialism has been linked to a variety of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.