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Student develops VR software to help overcome speech disorders and social anxiety

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A student from Nottingham Trent University developed a new virtual reality technology to help people deal with speech impediments.

Gareth Walkom, who has stuttered since the age of six, studies medical product design and his software would allow people to confront social anxieties in a virtual environment, before dealing with them in real life.

Gareth Walkom

Walkom told the Nottingham Post that his project includes a wide range of different scenarios and provides feedback on a user's anxiety levels, showing progress and indicating ways overcome anxiety.

The 24-year old said that he knows first-hand how much impact a stutter can have on a person's life, and that he wanted to make a difference for people that, like him, experience these uneasiness in everyday life.

"For a person who stutters, talking in front of an audience, for instance, can be an intimidating and heart-raising task.

"But with the growing availability of virtual reality technology, people could practice exposure therapy in ways previously unavailable to them from the comfort of their own home."

Gareth also told The Independent how the software works: “The main situation will be a one-on-one social interaction scene, where the individual will see an animated avatar who they will talk to.

“While the individual is talking to the avatar, their eye gaze behaviours are being measured to get a better understanding of where they are looking while interacting with the avatar. There will also be a scene to decrease the individual's anxiety levels, and to calm them.”

The results of the tests will be measured using the Real-Time Analysis of Speech Fluency (RTASF) scale, which provides a measure of various types of disfluency occurring in a speech sample.

And up to now, tests performed with the software on a self-help group showed that participants’ anxiety levels decreased upon multiple sessions and their speech difficulties diminished. Participants' fluency also improved over repeated sessions.

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