Ted the AI Avatar

Getting some virtual help to transform dementia care

Ted is a polite man, who will introduce himself and ask your name. And while the goal is to start a conversation with Ted, it’s not going to be real because Ted is a virtual reality avatar, the product of a gaming engine and a facial motion capture system of an actor’s expressions and emotions.

Ted is designed to help aged care workers learn how to improve communication with people living with dementia. In fact, his full name is Ted the AI Avatar Living With Dementia. And the innovation has already won the Victorian iAward for the Not-for-Profit and Community solution of the year.

Ted replaces the old way of training aged care workers in a classroom with a facilitator, PowerPoint and a group discussion. Ted gives aged care workers the opportunity, through trial and error, to learn good communication techniques in a safe learning environment, all through the technology of a VR headset.

Ted is a joint initiative between Dementia Australia and Deakin University’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute, but he owes his existence to a range of funders who have helped Dementia Australia on the technology journey for the past seven years.

Central to that journey has been a recognition at Dementia Australia that classroom training for aged care workers might have been to an excellent standard but once they went to work, they often found that their workplaces did things differently. “All the great work was squished out,’’ Dementia Australia CEO Maree McCabe recalls

So, Dementia Australia embraced experiential learning, whereby aged care workers could start to experience directly what it was like for those who were living with dementia.

“Technology initially couldn’t see how this could be done, and we were like: ‘Well, figure it out’,’’ Maree says. And they did, using video gaming technology as a starting point and building an evidence base around dementia behaviour and combining it with the lived experience of those with dementia into the model. The end result is an innovative training tool. “Ted trains the staff member,’’ Maree says.

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia and 250 people are diagnosed every day. Already there are 459,000 Australians living with dementia, costing the nation more than $15 billion. Caring for those living with dementia is an essential challenge for the Australian health system and the broader community.

And the early results for Ted are outstanding. Those carers who used the avatar had a 100 per cent recall of the five principles of positive communication eight weeks after undertaking their training. However, there were only 20 per cent of those who had been on the traditional text-book based path who recalled the same principles eight weeks later.

“This is not about buying extra equipment or anything like that,’’ Maree says. “This elevates the carer’s empathy. Because if you don’t understand dementia, it can be extremely challenging.’’

At the heart of it though is the desire to increase understanding about dementia symptoms and from there, change the practice around the care of those who are living with the disease.

Professor Kon Mouzakis, of Deakin’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute, says Ted was developed using the Unity game engine.

“A preliminary evaluation of Ted showed that it helped aged care worker develop increased confidence and a greater sense of just how impactful good communications skills can be on a person living with dementia,’’ he says.

Ted the AI Avatar Living With Dementia

Ted is expected to be launched on to the market next year and Maree’s hope is that it will become a mandatory part of aged care training.

Dementia Australia’s tablet app A Better Visit has also been recognised with its recent inclusion in the top ten of the AFR Boss 2020 Most Innovative Companies in the government, education and not-for-profit category.

The app grew out of a desire to help carers and aged care workers find new ways to engage with those who are living with dementia.

“Often carers and family don’t know what to talk about [during a visit]. This app helps facilitate that,’’ Maree says.

The free app is a two-person player and features eight games, includes a fishing game, Tic Tac Toe and music. “It’s very engaging and very intuitive,’’ Maree explains. “And it enables people to spend quality time together. It often prompts memories and starts amazing conversations.’’

The app has already been downloaded more than 6000 times.

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