This Suffolk company is using AI to generate human-like avatars

Orbital Media

Orbital Media - Credit: Oribital Media

From avatars to virtual reality bunny rabbits, this company is crossing new frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality

Orbital Media's chief executive Peter Brady. Picture: Jessica Hill

Orbital Media's chief executive Peter Brady. Picture: Jessica Hill - Credit: Archant

Imagine if the next time you feel those winter flu-like symptoms coming on, instead of visiting the local doctor’s surgery, you had an appointment with a rather human-like avatar.

Thanks to the artificial intelligence technology that’s now being developed here in Suffolk, that might well what the future has in store for the NHS.

Orbital Media, based in Stowmarket, has secured a partnership with the University of Essex to develop automated people who can provide online medical information.

“Given that the NHS needs to secure about £20bn of cost savings by 2020, we had this idea that a minor ailments like coughs, colds and hayfever should be outside the remit of primary care,” explained Orbital’s chief executive Peter Brady. “Because there isn’t really much that a doctor can do for a cough or a cold, and when you visit your doctor, you’re sharing your germs with others.”

Orbital Media

Orbital Media - Credit: Oribital Media

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After researching the topic, Mr Brady found that a lot of digital resources surrounding minor ailments are difficult to access.

“The NHS Choices website is labyrinthine,” he said. “We know, having worked in this space for a long time, that attention spans on digital platforms are very limited. People can spend literally seconds and if they don’t get what they want, they will leave. We think that’s a significant problem in the system.”

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Mr Brady explained that the AI came into it because the Orbital team wanted to make the process very visual. “We wanted people to have a very visual engagement with an avatar – an automated person, if you like – who can provide the information in a very human way. That required an AI mechanism.”

Working on the prototype for this project has led the Orbital Media team to explore new frontiers in the tech world. “We have seven or eight different AI projects that we’re working on at the moment which we’ve spun off as a result of this one project,” explained Mr Brady. “That’s hugely exciting.”

VR Equipment used by Orbital Media. Picture: Jessica Hill

VR Equipment used by Orbital Media. Picture: Jessica Hill - Credit: Archant

As a company, Orbital Media has been on quite a journey since it was formed in 2003 by Mr Brady as a social media and digital agency,

While the social media and digital marketing is still the “bread and butter,” Orbital is now the leading provider of gamification technology in the UK to the healthcare industry, and has a current turnover of just over £1m.

Mr Brady excitedly describes his workplace as a “nucleus of opportunity.”

“The beauty of being a digital agency is that it allows us to self-fund all our tech products, so we don’t have to go out and secure funding to do anything at the moment,” explained Mr Brady. “And the beauty of where we’ve come from is that we know how to market products and platforms too.”

While some of the 15 projects the company is involved in are still under wraps, one project, it can be revealed, is for a virtual reality simulation in which the participant is guided by a white rabbit, on a journey to cultivate and collect carrots. The aim of this immersive experience is to distract and mitigate pain for those undertaking topical medical procedures.

Although after removing the VR headset, some players can feel motion sickness, that downside is being eradicated in the next generation of games.

Orbital Media is also currently conducting research with the University of Suffolk, looking at using game play and also augmented reality and the impact of recall and memory on information.

Some of the tech being built up has patents pending on it, and the ultimate plan is to set up a separate tech company, “to encapsulate that aspect of what we’re doing,” Mr Brady explained.

His current bedtime reading consists of books and articles about the possibilities, and also the risks, involved in using Artificial Intelligence. With the rapid rate at which the technology is being developed across the world, surely it can be hard to keep apace?

“I see it as a challenge, yes, but an exciting one that opens up opportunities,” he said. “If you aim to produce the best product possible, then it doesn’t matter that someone has the same product across the other side of the world - it may not be any good, and quite often, they aren’t.”

Despite the AI doomsday scenarios that tend to make the headlines, Mr Brady argues that the future could be “exceptionally bright” for the human race if we embrace AI “in the right way.” “If you look at the Apollo space programme – they didn’t just fling a rocket up to the moon, they went through a huge process of millions of scenarios of what could go wrong first.

“Now what we’re doing with AI is working on scenarios of what could go wrong, so we can prepare and develop AI in such a way that avoids the pitfalls.”

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