Catching up to Life with Cartoon Puppets

The little boy, one of many on the autism spectrum, was usually not
interested in interacting with the therapist. He asked her if there
were Legos. The answer was no. He immediately lapsed back into sullen

Suddenly, a friendly cartoon character started talking to him from
inside a screen, responding to his actions, capturing his attention
one hundred percent – like nobody else had been able to do. At that
moment, everyone in the room realized that the fields of speech
language pathology and the treatment of autism were about to be
transformed forever.

It was a gusty autumn afternoon as I headed to the home office of my
friend Gary Jesch in Carson City, Nevada. A serendipitous encounter at
an engagement party had led to an animated discussion about our work
lives, but little had I known at the time how “animated” events would
literally turn.

For it turns out that this salt-of-the-earth, unassuming gentleman is
a maverick and a visionary who, for twenty years, has been working in
the field of live performance animation – like “Avatar,” only LIVE
live, as in, you get to interact with the cartoon character in real
time because the puppeteer is in another room controlling him/her and
watching YOU through a camera.

Through trade shows and company presentations all over the world
during the course of the past two decades, Gary and his clients have
seen firsthand that interacting with cartoon characters is not only a
way to instantly arouse potential customers’ interest, but that it is
also less intimidating for a lot of people, and therefore has a higher
success rate than regular interactions with live people.

This increased engagement could not be truer than for children –
especially children with any kind of obstacles to regular social
interaction, such as autistic children. But as it turns out, this
technology would be able to offer a lot more to children and adults on
the autism spectrum than merely unintimidating novelty…

As I walked into the charming and totally-normal-looking home of Gary
and his wife Sue, I was given a glass of water and discussed
pleasantries in the kitchen for a bit. Then, Gary invited me to come
see his work.

We walked three steps into the room behind the kitchen. I turned my
head. A sweet young boy was looking at me and shifting from side to
side… from inside a screen. An animation. Around him, lights and
equipment designed for international videoconferences. The feeling
that I had walked into a laboratory more than an office invaded me;
the boy on the screen looking at me made me feel less like I was
watching a cartoon movie than as if I were peering inside the amniotic
maturation chamber of an avatar awaiting life to be breathed into it.

Gary sat down at his laptop, chose a character out of a selection of
characters of various ages and genders, put on a simple headset with a
microphone, and superimposed onto a touchpad a grid on a plastic sheet
with boxes saying things like “angry,” “sad,” “happy,” “wave,” “head,”
“arms,” and so on. Then, he started talking and, as he did, the
character’s mouth moved in the same way as his. He showed me how
moving the mouse up and down inside each of the boxes intensified the
action in question – the more you moved the mouse up in the “sad” box,
the sadder the character’s facial expression became, for instance. In
the head box, you could move the head all around with the mouse.

I was shown various characters, each sharing a certain amount of
common movement and emotion possibilities, but also containing
features specific to them – including “Baby G,” who impressed me (and
apparently a host of YouTube internauts) with his rendition of
“Gangnam Style”! We spent three magical hours talking and playing with
the characters. I was sold.

In just the few test runs that they have done, the two therapists that
Gary is currently working with have already seen marked improvements
in the children, who are also given the opportunity to express
themselves THROUGH the characters as the actual puppeteers.

The possibility of controlling and repeating the actions of cartoon
characters over and over and over again reinforces the links between
emotions and facial expressions in the kids’ minds. It’s like taking
life and rewinding it like a movie again and again, slowing it down to
our own pace, until we GET it, and only THEN moving on, or like
reading a passage out of a book several times until we understand it
and then continuing with the story.

In real life (and even in traditional, formal schooling), we don’t
really get the chance to rewind and repeat often, if ever. Actions,
words, expressions, and concepts fly by and if we are not wired to
understand them on the fly from the get-go, the train has left the
station and we are not on it, nor can we ever hope to catch up by
running after it. We fall perpetually more and more behind. This
technology gives kids and even grown-ups a fighting chance to catch up
by slowing the learning to their pace. After coming to understand
social cues that were previously veiled in mystery to them, users of
this system can take what they have learned with the cartoons and
apply it to the real world. It is a thing of beauty. And it is already

Chops Live Animation and Invirtua Interactive 3D Animation Systems are
spearheading the application of this technology into the medical
field, where it will be cutting-edge methodology and, eventually,
could even become the standard. The program is in its pilot stage and
looking for funding to make the technology affordable and accessible
for all who could benefit from it – possibly even branching out into
platforms such as the Xbox for home use.

Also needed are speech language pathologists and others who would be
interested in trying this technology out with their patients. Other
potential applications could include assisting police detectives with
interviews of child victims of crime. Having assisted in many child
victim interviews over the course of the past six years myself as an
interpreter-translator, I am intrigued by the possibility.

Gary welcomes being directly contacted and would be glad to set up
demonstrations of the animation technology, which over the years has
become extremely portable and convenient. This technology will
undoubtedly be huge in a few years’ time or much less… and I am
honored to have actually gotten to spend three hours of one-on-one
time with the founder and CEO in his own home just chatting and
brainstorming about it on a casual autumn afternoon. That may one day
no longer be as simple a feat.

For more information, visit the websites of Invirtua and Chops & Associates:

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  •  gary_jesch: 

    Thanks very much Jessica, for this fascinating look behind-the-secenes at what we're working on with Invirtua.

    1 point
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