Asking the right questions

Simulations teach FBI agents, police, doctors how to interview

December 22, 2006|By Susan Thornton Hobby | Susan Thornton Hobby,Special to the Sun

Wearing a headset and facing a computer screen, Dale Olsen is interviewing Rashid Abdullah in what appears to be a video conference.

Abdullah is responding, but his eyes are narrowing, his mouth is hardening and his answers are growing more clipped.

The interviewer covers his mouthpiece. "Now I'm going to offend him," Olsen says, as he chooses a prompt from a dozen displayed on the screen:

"Your wife is very attractive," he says. "Where did you meet her?"

Abdullah erupts in a rage: "Where did you meet my wife?" he shouts.

Olsen smiles. He's played this game before. And he's losing on purpose.

In fact, Olsen invented the game to teach FBI agents how to interview Muslim witnesses, particularly those from foreign countries. The goal: avoiding questions that most Americans would find harmless - but are offensive to those raised in other cultures.

Over the past decade, Olsen's Columbia-based company, SIMmersion, has produced dozens of these "games," which are better described as sophisticated, interactive computer simulations filmed using real actors.

They teach novice police officers, social workers and doctors how to deal with clients, witnesses or patients without creating international incidents or generating malpractice suits.

The giveaway that this particular interview is a game is a small picture of a human helper at the bottom of the computer screen. She flashes a thumbs-up sign for good answers - but covers her face and shakes her head at a faux pas.

When they're done, interviewers get a numeric score for the quality of their interview, plus a detailed analysis of their performance - and a chance to play again.

Olsen, who has a doctorate in statistics and a background in polygraphy, worked for more than 30 years at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel, where he helped develop simulation software that taught sailors to pilot nuclear submarines.

He also has a background in video production, thanks to a longtime stint teaching aerobics at Columbia Association health clubs. There he produced and starred in a show called Move to Improve, which ran on Cable 6 for years.

It wasn't until 1995 that a chance meeting with Garland Phillips, then unit chief of the FBI's office of information and learning resources, gave Olsen the notion that he might put his skills together in a training simulator. Even so, the idea was a tough sell at the agency.

"It's not the kind of thing they do - `Hey, let's do an experiment for hundreds of thousands of dollars with some wacky scientists from APL,'" Phillips said.

The attitude changed two years later, after Olsen's new company had delivered its first simulation. The simulation, which taught agents to detect when a subject they are interviewing lies, was the model for those that followed: a complex video game designed to teach specific skills, but is different each time it's played.

Users can practice over and over, advocates say, with no cheat codes available - but no real-world consequences, either.

Although interviewers choose their lines from a list of possible gambits displayed on the screen - and read them to a computer - the responses are scripted conversationally, so that the interplay becomes instinctive, designers say.

"You get sucked in - you feel like you're really there with a patient," said Judie Pfeifer, senior outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine.

Pfeifer and her colleague, Dr. Michael Fleming, are helping SIMmersion develop a simulation for professionals who are trying to spot signs of alcoholism and prevent it. The university provides script writers with expertise on alcohol abuse, and once they're done, SIMmersion directors hire actors and film them in the firm's studio.

Among other productions: a simulation that helps chaplains discover whether an unhappy Marine is a suicide risk, and one that helps social workers deal with sexual assault survivors.

It's a different kind of reality TV - and one that's difficult to produce. In fact, it takes about nine months from concept to finished product.

"I liken it to the birth of a child," Olsen said. Except that characters are born fully grown, like Billy Parker, a 24-year-old Marine at risk of suicide, or 19-year-old Angela, a rape survivor.

"When you're done, you have an individual. They become very real. People don't say, `I'm going to run the simulation.' They say, `I'm going to chat with Billy Parker,'" Olsen said.

The software is randomized, so that every time a simulation starts, the computer sets a different stage - deciding whether the subject will be cooperative, belligerent, evasive or something else.

The program also chooses a back story: The character may have just spilled oatmeal on his suit, stepped in dog excrement on the way to the office, caused a fender bender, gotten a raise or married her high school sweetheart.

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