Danielle Olson: Building empathy through computer science and art

Communicating through computers has become an extension of our daily reality. But as speaking via screens has become commonplace, our exchanges are losing inflection, body language, and empathy.

Danielle Olson ’14, a first-year PhD student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), believes we can make digital information-sharing more natural and interpersonal, by creating immersive media to better understand each other’s feelings and backgrounds.

Olson’s research focuses on inventing and analyzing new forms of media, from gaming experiences to interactive narratives. Last year she worked with Fox Harrell, an associate professor of digital media with appointments in the MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing program and CSAIL, and Karim Ben Khelifa, a photojournalist and MIT visiting artist, on “The Enemy,” a virtual reality experience that lets users stand “face-to-face” with soldiers from opposing sides of global conflicts.

Khelifa traveled to places such as Israel, Palestine, and El Salvador to interview soldiers from different sides of conflicts. Olson’s contribution was to help design algorithms that analyzed their body language for how they would move in different scenarios. That information was then incorporated into the live experience: If the user walks towards one of the soldiers, the soldier can dynamically respond based on the user’s behavior.

She says that the goal of “The Enemy” is to enable the public to develop more meaningful relationships to world events than they would simply by reading news articles.

“You’re looking someone in the eye as they describe death and war conflicts, and seeing their facial expressions and body language,” Olson says. “There’s a different level of empathy that you can cultivate with these sorts of technologies.”

Her other areas of research follow a similar…

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