Kinetic Imaging professor explores tech-fueled relief for cancer patients

Semi Ryu, associate professor of Kinetic Imaging, was recently featured in the Richmond Times-Dispatch for her project VoicingHan, which employs virtual avatars to help medical patients self-reflect and manage pain.

VoicingHan is the next iteration of Ryu’s earlier project, Voicing Elder, which she developed with medical professionals and computer scientists. Both programs enable a user to tell stories and recall memories through a digital character. While Voicing Elder focuses on storytelling as a way to improve quality of life for residents in an assisted living facility, VoicingHan extends the same practices to terminally ill patients.

For cancer patients whose body may look different due to illness, speaking and gesturing through another version of themselves allows them to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.

Through avatars, patients playfully act out themselves at various ages, their significant others or fictional characters against a backdrop they choose of either bucket-list environments or everyday settings.

After telling their stories, cancer patients can view their avatar videos, which offer an opportunity for self-reflection and for sharing a family legacy. Many patients don’t want to be recorded if illness has changed their physicality, but with the avatar video, they can tell their stories without being self-conscious.

For VoicingHan, Ryu collaborated with Dr. Egidio Del Fabbro, professor and Palliative Care endowed chair and program director, and Dr. Danielle Noreika, associate clinical professor and medical director of Inpatient Palliative Services. They worked together to assess the project’s impact on patients’ quality of life and the feasibility of incorporating avatar therapy into palliative care.

The project name comes from the Korean concept of Han, a paradoxical state of consciousness that embodies extreme grief as well as hope for overcoming a situation that seems impossible.

“It is a critical state of reflection, where opposite states coexist with transformative power,” Ryu said. It represents the idea of being hopeful even in the most challenging situations. “VoicingHan is contemporary ritual mediated by technology,” Ryu said, “in the mode of grieving, mourning, accepting, sharing, and honoring our Han through storytelling.”

Read the full story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (digital subscription required).