VoicingHan: Managing pain through avatar technology

When Semi Ryu performed Parting on Z—her work about a farewell between symbolic lovers: user and avatar—in London in 2013, something unexpected happened. She found herself sobbing in the middle of it.

That’s when, she says, she found her Han—a Korean concept where one feels extreme grief coupled with great hope.

Ryu, an associate professor of Kinetic Imaging, wondered if this same experience could be replicated in others. She worked with Tracey Gendron from VCU’s Department of Gerontology to develop VoicingElder, which used avatars and lip sync technology to help residents in an assisted living facility listen to their own stories. Ryu saw the practice as a way to improve quality of life and connect through storytelling.

“They enjoyed talking, but it was also community theater,” she says. “Everybody shared their stories together. And sometimes they just wanted to be an audience and watch somebody else talking.”

Lately, Ryu has been testing a new hypothesis: Can personal storytelling and virtual reality help terminally ill patients manage their pain and construct meaning for their lives?

Working with a team of Kinetic Imaging students and health care workers from VCU’s palliative care unit, Ryu developed avatars representing a variety of ages and ethnicities. They also created environments—the beach, mountains, Europe and a typical living room—designed to help patients to connect with places and moments in their memories and imaginations. Through subtle shifts in the avatar’s facial expressions, soundtrack and the weather in each environment, Ryu aims to trigger shifts in patients’ emotions.

Ryu then set out to recruit patients to sign up for a series of sessions using the avatar technology. One test case involved a woman with cancer that resulted in pain in her left arm. By watching her movements through the avatar, however, the patient’s perception of pain changed and her mobility increased.

“It was amazing to see her left arm moving,” Ryu says. “We could see the possibilities, how it really brings a different kind of body perception.”

This summer, Ryu—along with Egidio Del Fabbro, Danielle Noreika and Malisa Dang from VCU’s palliative care unit—presented the paper VoicingHan: Between Mortal and Immortal at the International Symposium on Electronic Art. The showed how the practice can be used to approach mortality and mitigate existential suffering for palliative care patients in the digital age.

While Ryu’s research aims to shape future patient experiences, she says her work has deepened her own understanding of palliative care.

“At first I thought it was going to be a very gloomy and dark atmosphere,” she says. “But I found the opposite. Everybody is trying to enjoy every moment of life. They love spirituality because they are starting to think beyond the physicality of life. That is very close to what artists are talking about.”