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UTD Combats Bullying With Virtual Reality Project

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Inside a dark room at The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth Evan Harris gets to play a video game. It’s a virtual video game starring him.

Evan has an Avatar which mimics his facial expressions.

“He astoundingly looks a lot like me,” says Harris from Grand Prairie with a slight smile. There is a camera on the computer screen which captures Evan’s emotions.

While he’s in one room, clinician Tandra Allen is right next door.

Allen is a coach in a sense and has her own Avatar and she’s part of a new virtual reality project. She’s helping Evan with his social skills.

Evan, 15, has Asperger Syndrome which is a high functioning form of Autism.

“Even though you are not physically speaking to the person face to face you — you still hear their voice and you can still carry a conversation,” explains Harris while playing his game.

The Center for BrainHealth wanted to create a safe place to practice social skills and learn how to take a stand against bullies.

“Being able to recognize what someone’s social intentions are being able to perceive if someone is a good friend or potentially harmful friend that’s all being part of reading someone’s intention and have self-assurance and step up and speak for themselves,” explains Allen “They really learn how to interact in their everyday life through the virtual reality.”

The virtual game is the only one in the nation that has the type of facial recognition software.

“We track all your brow movements, your mouth movements and all of your head movements,” says Carl Lutz Creative Director for Center for Brain Health “You can have a very realistic interaction with someone else where you can smile at them or frown or look angry. Forces you to pay attention to some of those sudden facial queues while you’re inside a video game.”

For the Center’s Chief Director Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman the program is a decade-long dream finally come true.

“We focus on how can we make your brain work better,” says Dr. Bond Chapman “Some of the scenarios that we set up are what do you do when someone makes light of you or puts you down – how can you stand up for that.”

She goes on to say that in the virtual world the center can help people learn to deal with social issues.

“When they practice a safe way and nothing really bad happens and it’s actually positive so much changes for them in terms of interaction,” explains Dr. Bond Chapman.

For students like Evan it’s working.

He says taking a stand in a virtual world makes it much easier for him to do it in the real one.

Boys shout and wave their fists. (credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Boys shout and wave their fists. (credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s taught me to stand up for myself and to defend myself if someone is teasing me or trying to bring me down,” says Harris.

The Center for BrainHealth works with children as young as 7 and people up to 40 years old.

There are 10 sessions in the program.

The Center has also helped people with traumatic brain injury and Attention Deficit Disorder.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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