News Release

Researchers from USC ICT win Veterans Affairs award to develop virtual mental health agent to combat veteran suicides

Battle Buddy, developed in collaboration with the SoldierStrong Foundation, could provide veterans with valuable resources to address mental health and wellness concerns

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Southern California

The USC Institute for Creative Technologies (USC ICT) has received a $250,000 award to advance the use of technology that could help reduce veteran suicides.

The award is from Mission Daybreak, a $20 million grand challenge that is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ 10-year strategy to limit veteran suicide through a comprehensive, public health approach. Phase 1 of the competition for this award attracted 1,371 proposals of which 30 were selected for funding.

The USC ICT team, Arno Hartholt, Sharon Mozgai and Skip Rizzo — in collaboration with the SoldierStrong Foundation — proposed to extend their previous U.S. Army-funded research that promotes engagement with a virtual human-led mobile mental health and wellness application, Battle Buddy. This interactive, embodied conversational agent leverages content related to the VA’s Suicide Safety Planning program embedded within brief daily check-ins with veterans. The virtual human will also allow veterans to opt-in to connect their wearable sensors to the app, leveraging sleep, exercise and other sensed signals to their overall well-being.

In November, the USC ICT/SoldierStrong team traveled to Washington, D.C. to demo the Battle Buddy prototype and present a long-term research and development vision for the program in competition with the other Phase 1 awardees. Ten winners will be selected for Phase 2 development with awards ranging from $500,000 to $3 million.

This effort extends upon ICT’s partnership with SoldierStrong who has donated the equipment, software, and clinician training for ICT’s Virtual Reality PTSD Exposure Therapy system (BRAVEMIND) across the VA health network. “There is nothing more important to the VA than preventing veteran suicide — it’s our top clinical priority,” said Denis McDonough, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

About USC ITC, Soldier Strong

The USC Institute for Creative Technologies at USC is a U.S. Army University Affiliated Research Center (UARC). For over 20 years, USC ICT has been at the forefront of basic and applied research in immersive technology, simulation, human performance, computer graphics, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and narrative. USC ICT has leveraged this multi-disciplinary research to develop advanced prototypes and pilot projects that solve real-world problems facing service members, civilians, students, and society.

SoldierStrong provides revolutionary technology, innovative advancements and educational opportunities to veterans to better their lives and the lives of their families.

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