A cutting-edge development in the USC School of Social Work will give graduate students an unprecedented chance to study war-related traumas through interaction with 3-D holograms.
Since August, USC has offered a sub-concentration in military social work and veteran services, a program that emphasizes the treatment of veterans suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related afflictions.
Once the already-approved $3.2 million grant clears Congress early next year, however, the program will feature a more interactive approach, giving students the chance to analyze hypothetical war-related traumas using holograms.
The hologram technology, which uses spinning mirrors to project a 3-D floating head into a confined area, is completely ready for use, said Anthony Hassan, inaugural director of the USC Center for Research and Innovation on Veterans and Military Families.
“The use of virtual humans is something very new within the School of Social Work,” Jose Coll, director of Military Social Work and Veteran Services at USC, wrote in an email. “And for that matter, we are the only school of social work that will be using virtual humans for training.”
The virtual human technology, co-developed by the School of Social Work and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, is the first of its kind nationwide, Coll said. It features holographic images programmed based on behavior typically exhibited by veterans.
So far, three holographic avatars have been developed. One suffers from PTSD, one has severe depression and one has been a victim of a military sexual trauma. Hassan said the school hopes the simulations will help students later interact with real troops who have these same issues.
“We want to be the nation’s consultant as it relates to treatment of veterans and their families,” Hassan said. “And USC has developed the competence to really lead the way in this effort.”
Research gathered by the US Department of Defense shows one in five service members deployed to war in the last five years returns with PTSD or similar war-related traumas. Those with PTSD face a significantly higher likelihood of substance abuse, marital problems and suicide, and only 53 percent of these veterans and service members have sought treatment.
The School of Social Work is also working to develop an online platform that would offer similar interactive courses on the Internet, and the school hopes to extend the program to those outside of the school. The platform is expected to launch by next summer.
“We’re working with ICT to develop an online platform so a student in Minnesota could have the experience of interacting with a military patient in as realistic a way as possible using the given technology,” Hassan said.
Hassan emphasized that this component of the program is not merely an online replication of the content offered in the school’s courses.
“[The online platform] is state of the art and interactive — almost at the point of virtual reality,” Hassan said. “There’s interactive media, there’s testimonial videos from veterans … We’re implementing the avatar online so students can interact with a virtual patient from their laptop.”
Carolann Peterson, a part-time lecturer in the School of Social Work whose expertise is PTSD, said she believes the program takes the right steps toward treating soldiers with PTSD and other similar problems.
“In our new tech age, we need to take advantage of anything and everything that will assist veterans who are returning with PTSD,” Peterson said.
Peterson also said the school’s programs, along with veteran administrative programs, offer a sense of community that will help soldiers who want to return to school and readjust to civilian life.
“We want them to know that we not only welcome them back, but also that we understand them and are here to help,” Peterson said.