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Role-Play Apps Star in New Technologies

It's time to leverage developers' know-how to improve lives
By James A. Larson - Posted May 8, 2015
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Your mobile device displays a blueprint of a spaceship invaded by aliens. Lights represent each alien and the surviving crew member. You verbally guide the crew member as he makes his way to the bridge of the ship, avoiding aliens along the way. Speech recognition software interprets your instructions, which trigger the lights on the blueprint to reposition themselves as you direct the crew member to safety or doom.

Welcome to Mayday! Deep Space, a game app in which the player becomes part of the adventure, taking on the role of the remote expert. The computer plays the role of the crew member and responds by replaying prerecorded audio clips. Such role-playing is an important aspect of many game apps.

Role-Playing in Children’s Apps

ToyTalk, a family-entertainment company, creates cartoon characters that children can talk and listen to. In the app SpeakaZoo, children take on the role of a zookeeper as they speak with cartoon characters, helping them work through various neuroses and fears. The characters are played by the application, which presents cartoon graphics and audio to the child. In Speak or Treat, the child is a trick-or-treater who visits a scary part of town, interacting with a werewolf, a ghost, Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, and a witch. Children have fun role-playing with these characters, while at the same time are encouraged to listen and speak, making these apps entertaining and educational.

Role-Playing with Historical Figures

In synthetic interviews, players act as reporters, asking questions of a historical figure, then looking and listening to answers in video clips of an actor portraying that individual. In a synthetic interview at the Carnegie Science Center, Charles Darwin answers 199 most frequently asked questions, with the actor using Darwin’s actual words. Answers cover many aspects of Darwin’s life. Users may find that interacting with a virtual Darwin is much more interesting than reading a textbook.

Role-Playing with Foreign Language Speakers

One of the best ways to learn another language is to role-play with people who speak it. Virtual agents can fill in for actual foreign speakers, who are not always available. Students are immersed in a virtual environment where they encounter real-life situations as they speak and listen. Not only can students learn a foreign language, but they also learn about the customs and cultures of the speakers.

Role-Playing to Learn Communication Skills

Role-playing can teach such business communication skills as customer service, negotiation, supervision, security and safety procedures, and proper medical patient interactions. Qooco, a company specializing in teaching English as a foreign language, offers courses in hospitality training for Chinese students in which students learn both English and the skills needed to work in a restaurant or hotel. Alelo, which specializes in training apps for communication skills, has developed apps for interacting with locals for use by military personnel in hostile areas.

DIY Role Play Apps

Training applications are needed at all levels of education, for many disciplines, and for various types of learners. Training apps are needed wherever you are, whenever you have time, and whatever electronic devices you use. Role-playing will be an important feature of many educational applications, especially those that speak and listen.

What's needed for trainers to create role-playing training apps specifically for their clients? Currently, developing role-playing training apps is like living in the Wild West—anything goes. Tools are appearing that enable trainers to create training scenarios using virtual role players, but the following is needed:

• template training apps that are easily tailored and molded for specific needs;

• documented best practices that teach developers how to avoid common pitfalls and problems;

• guidelines that describe how users can best learn by interacting with virtual agents; and

• standards that explain how to integrate various software components to develop role-playing training apps.

Developers know how to create compelling game apps. It's time to leverage this knowledge to help people everywhere use role-playing apps to teach themselves how to make their lives better.

James A. Larson, Ph.D., is an independent speech technology consultant and teaches courses in speech technologies and user interfaces at Portland State University in Oregon. He is co–program chair for SpeechTEK 2015, which will host a panel session on role-playing in training applications.

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