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UCL collaborates with IBM to use virtual reality to tackle loneliness

Through an industry collaboration with IBM, university is enabling students to tackle real-world problems using virtual reality, artificial intelligence and internet of things technologies

With the UK population having to maintain social isolation to reduce the impact of coronavirus, new research has highlighted the extent of loneliness.

A study released today by IBM’s Institute for Business Value on loneliness in the era of social distancing has found that 43% of the ageing population feel lonely at least some of the time.

UCL is now working on a project with IBM to investigate how technology can overcome the challenges of loneliness.

As part of UCL’s Industry Exchange Network (UCL IXN), students are developing projects using Watson Technologies on IBM Cloud to address challenges posed by the coronavirus.

One of the proof-of-concept projects uses IBM Watson Assistant and Watson Speech services is a customised, immersive social experience to help users, such as the elderly, feel less socially isolated.

According to IBM, this proof of concept is especially timely given the current strict rules on social interactions that have been put into place because of the coronavirus pandemic, where people may grow increasingly socially isolated. The application runs on a range of devices, from entry-level iOS and Android tablets to Oculus VR (virtual reality) systems.

The Oculus VR demonstrator, powered by Watson technologies, is aimed at simulating socially engaging VR scenes, by providing people who are feeling isolated with the opportunity to create a room where they can connect, play and talk to their family members and friends without having to physically interact or move location.

Players are presented with three scenic backgrounds – a park, a bustling street or a restaurant – and three avatars that they can choose from. Whether acting as the host or the guest, players have the opportunity to experience the VR environment by themselves or through Watson Assistant. IBM says the application enables someone who may be feeling isolated to connect to the outside world in a more immersive way.

Oculus Go VR is another proof-of-concept project. It uses Watson voice recognition capability – a part of Watson Speech services – to bring remote 360 training for scenarios that are resource-intensive and would traditionally require experts to be physically present. The project aims to demonstrate how VR could be deployed in training the next generation of medical students in the UK.

Read more about augmented reality and VR

These projects are part of a wider international educational collaboration that makes use of IBM technologies such as IBM Cloud, IoT and AI to enable students to work on problems faced by real-world organisations.

UCL said that having students work on the requirements of real organisations is a core educational gain on the UCL IXN programme.

Dean Mohamedally, principal teaching fellow for software engineering and industry projects at UCL, said: “Being able to offer our students as much as we possibly can, beyond academic learning, is our top priority. From an industry perspective, this new IBM programme will enable students to develop the next generation of prototypes supporting their interoperability, efficiency and innovation streams with IBM technologies and partnerships.

“The students will gain by using technology that helps to shape and develop their innovation, creativity and inspiration in problem-solving for real user needs. We are incredibly excited to be working with IBM to help equip our students with the skills they need to go on to change the world around them. We hope to see many students publish their work through this programme.”

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