People-skill decisions software's objective

Simmersion training discs aim for custom markets

Small business

January 27, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Billy Parker is just a simulation - an actor on a computer screen pretending to be a depressed and possibly suicidal Army infantryman. But for Army chaplains who counsel thousands of soldiers, a conversation with Billy is as real as it gets.

"It's very much like you would sit down with a counselee," said Lt. Col. Byron Simmons, a chaplain who has been testing the program during training sessions for other chaplains.

"That's very, very important because it allows you to make mistakes with a virtual counselee rather than make mistakes with a real counselee," Simmons said.

The program for chaplains is one of several training simulations created by Dale Olsen, founder of Columbia-based Simmersion LLC.

Less than a year after spinning out from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel, Simmersion says its training software is being used throughout the United States and in several foreign countries.

Now, Olsen and executives in his company are learning to survive on their own and hoping to repeat their products' success in the commercial world.

The seven-person company is expecting to double its staff over the year, Olsen said. But right now, the goal is to get traction, then look for partners or investors.

"We are looking for government sponsors, corporate sponsors and publishers as sponsors," Olsen said. "We want to establish ourselves as a profitable business."

Simmersion's complex simulation software is aimed at helping train users in the normally learn-by-error skills involved in managing or dealing with people.

The Billy Parker program is designed to help chaplains assess suicide risk.

But other programs, such as one created for the FBI, are designed to help agents learn to detect deception.

Company executives say they can develop software to train salespeople, teach job interviewing skills to employers or teach employees how to handle resistance from customers.

"What we're trying to do is focus on a niche training market," said Ken Bissett, Simmersion's chief financial officer.

But one analyst said customizing software for several markets is a difficult way to grow a company.

"I can see lots of different cases for [its use], but every one of those [training scenarios] is a little niche they'd have to make a case for. That's just time-consuming," said Cushing Anderson, program director for learning services research at IDC in Massachusetts.

"If you're a custom business, every job is a new market. If every job is taking just as much effort, he's not making headway."

A customized simulation can cost anywhere from about $250,000 for a five-minute product to about $1 million for a more complex and robust 90-minute production. Costs like that can drive some clients away and narrow the market even further, he said.

"Any price-point that's over tens of thousands, it's a very limited market," Anderson said.

"What he needs is a tool. [He] has to find a way to make [the technology] generic, and he has to see whether the market is there. And unless the tool is a lot less expensive, the market will not be there."

Simmersion's programs use actors to engage the users and an almost infinite combination of variables based on their state - guilty, innocent, suicidal, depressed - as well as logic, emotion and responses previously given in the interview.

But it also responds to the user - whether male or female, and whether the questions seem appropriate or offensive.

For example, a tense Billy can be calmed by the user's attempts to engage him in small talk or general conversation, and a calm Billy can storm off and end the session because of a user's constant prodding with offensive questions.

Users choose questions from categorized lists. They can speak into a microphone on voice-enabled programs, or select the questions, using a mouse.

In the end, the user must make a decision - based on the verbal and nonverbal cues gathered in the interview - whether Billy is at risk of committing suicide and how great a danger he poses to himself. The user also has to specify the reasons for the decision.

In each case, the user is given a score based on the objectives for the training - whether the user did a good job establishing rapport, whether the questions were direct and probes were thorough, whether the user read the simulation's cues.

"Every single conversation is a unique conversation," said Garland Phillips, a former FBI unit chief of training research and development at the agency's academy, who has used another Simmersion program, Mike Simmen.

"You don't know whether he's going to be truthful or deceptive. What makes it realistic is, as you're interviewing Mike, he's paying attention to what you say, how you treat him. His mood and willingness to cooperate changes depending on how you treat him," Phillips said.

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