By Joe Lacdan, Army News ServiceJuly 30, 2019
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- In a small classroom at Fort Riley, Kansas, a sexual assault victim shares intimate details about his experience being sexually assaulted during a 2010 deployment to Iraq.
Sitting in a red chair in his Army combat uniform, the victim, Jarett Wright, answers questions from students at the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Academy.
Wright actually has already left the Army and isn't really in the classroom. The students are interacting with a digital avatar of the Soldier on a vertical LCD monitor, listening in hushed silence as he talks about the assault he suffered at the hands of his unit members as part of a violent hazing initiation into the unit.
Then a young private first class, Wright suffered physical injuries and depression from the assaults, which included rape and humiliation tactics.
"I felt like I was nothing," Wright said. "I didn't even know how to go about talking to someone about this, because I'm just a lowly PFC. No one's going to listen to me."
The Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault, or DS2A, prototype developed at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, has helped students empathize with the victim, which Army leaders hope builds better sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates.
The program gives the Army another tool in its objective to eradicate sexual assault and harassment within its ranks. DS2A helps students gain an understanding of how sexual harassment and sexual assault can negatively impact readiness in military units.
"The idea is to get people more familiar with the situation," said Ron Artstein, research scientist at the ICT. "Get them to also not just be aware and know, but also feel for them -- feel empathy (and) connect."
Through a partnership with the Army Research Lab and the SHARP Academy, ICT researchers developed the immersive interactive training, which takes place during the final block of the seven-week SARC/victim advocate course before students graduate.
The interactive program can put new students at ease when interviewing victims, Artstein said.
"It lets people open up," Artstein said. "When somebody is talking to (the survivor's avatar) you don't feel judged, you feel a little bit less embarrassed, a little bit less uncomfortable."
Accessibility to a victim gives the program added dimension. Although the victim, a former Army specialist, does not often speak publicly about the assault, the students can talk to him anytime with the flick of a mouse.
Artstein said researchers have not yet programmed the prototype for mass dissemination and it remains strictly formatted for training purposes only. But eventually the researchers would like to make a digital survivor program that addresses other effects of sexual assault, including suicidal thoughts. The research scientist said during a feedback session, a Soldier once asked multiple questions regarding suicide. ICT members later learned that the Soldier had multiple friends who had expressed desires to commit suicide.
Language understanding technology allows users to ask dozens of variations of questions. The training can be used to train individual academy students or be used in a group setting.
Wright spent two weeks at the ICT's Playa Vista campus in January 2017 and returned for a three-day recording session in May 2017, voicing a total of 1,926 responses to possible user questions. ICT researchers filmed Wright's answers during lengthy interviews before 52 cameras inside the ICT's light stage.
The system internally ranks the best responses based on an ideal response model and programs the digital depiction to respond with the highest-ranked answer.
Researchers used a similar model to the one used for the New Dimensions in Testimony project, which documented testimonies of some of the last living survivors of the Holocaust. The Holocaust project shares historical stories with the public, but researchers created the DS2A project solely for training purposes. The goal is to engage Soldiers and Army civilians in an immersive and interactive conversation.
"When people are in a small group talking to the system, they're engaged. They're interested," Artstein said. "They want to learn more."
The researchers have based success and the overall effectiveness of the project on positive feedback from users and their tendency to ask probing questions. SHARP instructors have found the program so effective that it has been used as a capstone block of the course.
Eventually, Artstein said, the programmers hope to create digital testimony from a female survivor, but said there are no current plans to do so.