Simon Fraser University


Research

Benny Lee and KJ Lee

Benny Lee (left) and KJ Lee are developing animation software that helps to teaches autistic children how to communicate.

3-D facial animation research aids autistic kids

January 22, 2009

Steve DiPaola and his interactive arts and technology students at SFU’s Surrey campus are using computer animation for more than just videogames. They’re adapting DiPaola’s work in three-dimensional facial animation to help autistic children learn to communicate.

According to PhD student KJ Lee, children with autism tend to have difficulty reading expressions on other people’s faces, which means they can’t tell whether people are interested or bored, friendly or menacing.

But with computer animation, "we can develop a training program that lets them interact with virtual characters, since sometimes working directly with real people can be overwhelming or frustrating," says Lee. "Using computer technology, we can provide step-by-step instructions based on the individual profile of the person with the disability."

Traditionally, Lee says, hospitals and autism clinics have used video footage of live actors. But the footage is expensive to produce and can’t be tailored to individual autistic children. Facial animation software is not only less costly but is more flexible, he says.

DiPaola says the application of facial animation technology to non-traditional fields is the result of recent advances in the areas of visualization and human-computer interaction. "Virtual agents are appealing replacements in a number of fields," he says. "Such an agent can communicate with viewers using a realistic appearance, social interaction and expressiveness."

The work is still at an early stage, KJ Lee cautions. "The next step is to finish the 3-D renderings, bring them to the psychology department, which also worked on the project, and do a pilot test." By Terry Lavender