updated 8/3/2012 2:19:13 PM ET 2012-08-03T18:19:13

Virtual humans may be getting real-world jobs, training psychiatrists.

New technology makes it possible for virtual humans to interact with a therapist via a computer, while mimicking the symptoms of a patient with a clinical psychological disorder, Albert "Skip" Rizzo told colleagues at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., today (Aug. 3).

Videos of conversations between a virtual character and a therapist in training resemble video chats with a character from The Sims, a virtual-reality game. Speech recognition software allows the virtual patients to answer questions, so the therapist can make a preliminary diagnosis.

The virtual patients include "Justin," is a 16-year-old with a conduct disorder who is being forced by his family to participate in therapy, and the more advanced iteration, "Justina," a sexual assault victim who was designed to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an initial test, 15 psychiatry residents were asked to perform a 15-minute interaction with Justina. 

Rizzo's lab at the University of Southern California is also developing virtual veterans with depression and suicidal thoughts; they are intended to help train clinicians and military personnel to spot those at risk for suicide or violence.

Over the long-term, Rizzo hopes to create a library of virtual patients representing many diagnoses to be used in training psychiatrists and psychologists, who currently train using role-playing followed by supervised work with real patients.

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