In the 21st century it is fair to say that some people are only as valuable as the ideas they can share. Public speaking and communication skills are essential to persuade, explain, and read emotions and behavioral clues in a social context. However, even individuals who excel at casual oral communication with peers may have a hard time translating that skill into a professional or technical setting.
For many, public speaking is intimidating and a highly stressful experience. According to surveys, public speaking is consistently among the top in the list of people's greatest fears. Stressors such as public speaking activate the sympathetic autonomic nervous system that is responsible for the body's 'fight-or-flight' response. While many struggle with effective communication, particularly in large group settings, the need for effective communication and the exchange of ideas in our world is on the rise. How can this problem be solved?
Theodora Chaspari, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University is working with Amir Behzadan, associate professor in the Department of Construction Science, to improve an individual's public speaking skills by utilizing virtual reality (VR) technology. The team was recently awarded a grant from the Engineering Information Foundation for this project, whose mission is to "improve worldwide engineering education and practice through information technology and the recruitment of women."
"In particular, the goal of this project is to create more opportunities for students to present in a public setting for varying audiences that go beyond their comfort zone while teaching them how to be effective and concise in their speech and to manage their anxiety," Chaspari says. "This study will examine how new wearable devices and VR can be integrated to provide low-cost personalized public speaking interventions."
Information and communication technology, when paired with a healthy balance of instructional approaches and carefully-designed personalized learning experiences, can provide educators with essential tools to create a blended, student-centered learning environment that transforms learning, helps develop better communication and interpersonal skills, and inspires creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.
"In this project we are using a VR interface that simulates a public speaking environment, allowing us to manipulate several attributes of the virtual audience, such as attentiveness, engagement, and perceived positivity or negativity," Behzadan says. "We are further including experiments with various types of audiences, presentation settings, or social settings. Participants have access to the VR application on their smartphones and can interact with the scene by wearing a VR headset."
The majority of existing studies were conducted in laboratory settings with limited real-world implementations. With no follow up results in the direction of wearables, it still remains unclear whether consistent practice of real-time feedback can help promote an individual's public speaking skills over time.
"Motivated by these and similar findings, we are working on a transformative pedagogical project that benefits from smartphone devices and wearable technology owned and operated by many millennials and college students thus making the outcome ubiquitous, cost-effective, replicable, and scalable," Chaspari says. "We deploy low-cost consumer-grade smartwatches, smartphones, and VR headsets to investigate in-the-moment public speaking interventions within a virtual learning environment and their potential benefits compared to interventions administered in a traditional learning environment."
The developed technology can monitor physiological indices and speech patterns, integrate bio-signals for assessment of public speaking environments and provision of data-driven real-time feedback. This work will provide the general public with an inexpensive public speaking intervention system for practicing presentations in front of a virtual audience, and improving confidence, speech clarity, and the ability to handle stress levels during a presentation.
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