AWS for Games Blog

Center for BrainHealth teams up with AWS to grow Charisma program using generative AI and cloud gaming

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the cognitive neuroscience team at Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas (the center) began experimenting with an idea more than a decade ago – to create a virtual environment using video game technology to help individuals practice developing social skills alongside a coach, in a risk-free space. In 2016 the center launched Charisma Virtual Social Coaching, and since has helped over 500 individuals ages eight and up navigate social challenges stemming from life transitions as well as conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning difficulties.

The program is now at an inflection point. To meet growing demand for coaches, the center has begun to expand Charisma beyond their own staff, so that it can be used by school counselors, clinicians, and other professionals to support more individuals across the globe. To substantially scale the program over the next few years, the center has teamed up with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to leverage generative AI and pixel streaming technology – the backbone of cloud gaming – to make Charisma easier for others to adopt and use.

According to Center for BrainHealth Clinician Kathleen Shaffer, CCC-SLP the center’s team of three coaches can currently accommodate around ten people per day. Working with a client involves both an interactive session, as well as reviewing video from that session in order to identify and assess what social competencies were exhibited. With sessions averaging 50 minutes in length, coaches can spend hours going through video in order to document progress and plan for upcoming coaching sessions – not to mention the time investment to hone their coaching skillset. The center is now working to integrate generative AI tools to assist with evaluations and assessments that will significantly help increase the number of clients the center can support, as well as make it easier for other institutions and professionals to leverage Charisma.

Charisma at a glance

Charisma is based on more than a decade of research and offers live, strategy-focused social coaching in realistic virtual scenarios. A testament to its efficacy, 90 percent of participants have reported gains in recognizing and managing emotions, and nearly 75 percent have doubled their ability to understand the intentions of others. This is part of the larger mission of the Center for BrainHealth, which is to empower people to realize the immense potential of their brains by equipping them with meaningful brain-healthy strategies so they can thrive at home, at school, at work, and in life.

Charisma is designed to help anyone with social challenges, but its biggest clientele ranges from middle schoolers to early adolescence, where navigating new social expectations and dynamics are a daily occurrence. “Social rules shift and it is easy to feel alone,” explained Shaffer. “Charisma helps make these transitions easier, but as we’ve uncovered over the years, it’s also helping people looking to sharpen their job interview skills or improve customer service interactions.”

Generative AI acceleration

Working side-by-side with Charisma coaches and developers, the center is building AI models that will recognize and document behaviors to assist the coach and enhance their efficiency. This is based on a number of factors, such as facial expressions, gaze, and tonal recognition. By having the model evaluate sessions, coaches can remain focused on their client rather than trying to simultaneously identify and record social competencies. Using the new models, coaches will also be able to easily bookmark certain moments flagged during a session for review, rather than having to review the full session to find a specific interaction.

Developed and validated at the center using more than ten years of data, the models also are being trained to trigger prompts to guide coaches during sessions, based on the curriculum and historical sessions it has reviewed.

Shaffer, who has been a Charisma Coach for five years and helped shape its latest iteration, shared, “With additional gen AI tools embedded in the platform, we can increase both the quantity and quality of services. I can be more consistent, and my own cognitive load is reduced so that I can see more people. A lot of our strategies are second nature to me now, but prompts can help newer coaches get up to speed quickly and minimize multi-tasking overall.”

“Perspective is important to our sessions, and there are so many things happening at once it can be hard to keep track of all the elements. Being able to click a button to flag moments takes off some of my mental load,” she explained. “When it comes to helping clients retrain their brain through Charisma sessions – I’m a fly on the wall, observing, and offering guidance as needed. The new AI features provide a similar function and offer assurance that we’re understanding the full picture for each session so we can best serve the user.”

Growing Charisma with AWS

Initially, Charisma ran on computers located at the center, which required significant tech support to manage. Additionally, clients had to download the program to play it or go to a facility where it was available. That all changed when Aaron Tate, Director of Emerging Technology at Center for BrainHealth, and his team talked to AWS about pixel streaming at the 2019 Game Developers Conference (GDC), beginning the center’s cloud-based transformation. The center combined different services from AWS, including Amazon GameLift – which deploys and manages the servers needed to run games – to introduce a scalable, low-latency and low-cost solution.

“Our lead software dev jumped in, uploaded our packages, and showed me what Charisma would look like using AWS. We were blown away how much smoother it was than our home-grown pixel streaming,” he recalled. “It was easy to make the switch. We could have taken the time to make ours work better but we’re a small team, and it would have taken more time and effort than what we had available.”

Today, Charisma is available as a one-click game launcher via a web browser, streamlining client access from more devices and providing a low-latency experience that better enables the platform to simulate real-world scenarios. Users can quickly enter a virtual world, create their avatars, and meet their coach, who also has a custom avatar. Tate noted, “AWS streaming technology really changed the game for accessibility to the type of interactions we’re providing in Charisma. We shortened the friction for start-up and reduced the frustration that coaches might experience when managing multiple pieces of software.”

Since Charisma is running on AWS, the center began building its generative AI models on AWS as well. As a result, the center can continuously scale and optimize the models with new data.

Ultimately, the center aims to help more people overcome social challenges with Charisma by putting the program in the hands of more professionals who can easily employ it. By embracing generative AI and the underlying technology to remove barriers to adoption, the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth team is ready to help more individuals connect with others in a way that feels right to them.

Individuals interested in scheduling a Charisma consultation can do so here. Learn more about the how AWS makes it easy to build and scale generative AI with customized data, here.

Emily McKinzie

Emily McKinzie

Emily McKinzie is an Industry Marketing Manager at Amazon Web Services.