About the presenter: Grant Meredith is a lecturer in multimedia and games design at the University of Ballarat, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. He has achieved bachelor degrees in both Computing and IT and is currenlty working through PhD research looking at the experiences of stuttering students within the Australian higher education system. Grant achieved the honour of being his university's lecturer of the year for 2008 and loves the challenge of lecturing despite being a person who stutters.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2009.

A Virtual World for Stuttering Support

by Grant Meredith
from Australia

A Virtual World for Stuttering Support Technology is changing at a very rapid and exciting rate. Access to the Internet has become common for most western households and is slowly being dispersed into developing countries. The most popular service on the Internet, the World Wide Web, enables people to quickly search out and access materials and services with little training. The prices of computing hardware are dropping at a fast rate due to the rapid embracement and development of technology. Added to this is the fact that software now being designed with the low-end user in mind is leading to more and more people developing a virtual online presence.

Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) have been advancing and embraced at a very rapid rate online. MUVEs has lead to the expansion of three dimensional social worlds where people can meet and socialize through their self developed personal virtual representations. MUVEs have also lead to the growth of online transactions with many large companies setting up virtual stores and shops to sell their goods and services. But for myself it is the building of social networks and simulations that excites me the most.

I had toyed around with ideas in my head about support and simulations for a couple of years with stuttering in mind. But those were just ideas and concepts. In early 2009 the opportunity that I had been waiting for arose. I was presented with the opportunity to attach myself to a Higher Education Incentive Grant application at my university (The University of Ballarat). This application in brief was to fund the development of a virtual presence and experimental simulations for the university in the hugely popular and free to join MUVE of 2nd Life. I added my details and a concept.

Not long after, the grant application was accepted. It was a small internal grant but it presented me with a great opportunity, an opportunity to help my fellow stutterers around the world and an opportunity to collaborate with some great people. The opportunity to create a concept of an online environment for the social presence, support and possibly treatment opportunities for stutterers worldwide and thus the Virtual Stuttering Support Centre (VSSC) was created and is the world's first. I see this as the first brave step forward for stutterers, related academics and interested parties into virtual online worlds. I hope you see the possibilities that lay beyond this humble start.

Now before I begin explaining the concept of the VSSC, I must say that I feel truly honoured to have been allowed to develop my ideas to this stage. I view being able to research as not being a right, but as being a tax payer, a funded privilege to further and improve our society.

The Virtual Stuttering Support Centre (VSSC) sits within the University of Ballarat's own island in 2nd Life (http://slurl.com/secondlife/university%20of%20ballarat/184/145/26). The VSSC is a six story high building housing social, support and simulation options. Within the VSSC all users will be encouraged to communicate with each other using their real voices via a standard microphone and speaker/headset package. It really should be seen as a perfect and comfortable environment to communicate with your fellow stutterer.

If the above doesn't work for you, the video is also available here - Learning in Virtual Spaces

An online tour is available and I will now explain the features to date, many of which base themselves on a community of self-support.

If the above doesn't work for you, the video is also available here - Overview

The Foyer: The foyer, like its real world representation suggests, is simply the initial greeting area for the VSSC. This is where people can meet, prepare for functions and socialize. The foyer also has some poster-based links to some external sites of interest. External sites who are interested in supporting the VSSC and having their link advertised there can contact me to discuss this opportunity. I am also envisaging an information desk with handouts to give visitors some basic information about stuttering and treatment options. The purpose of the VSSC is of course to help stutterers, but it is also in place to help raise stuttering awareness throughout the greater community.

Support room: The Support Area is a small hall that could be used as a meeting area for support groups or social groups. You are able to sit and stand in this hall and interact with others. This room also has an interactive screen which enables presentations to take place. I can imagine stuttering related worldwide presentations taking place here for all to see and hear. Virtual worlds offer such wonderful 3D environments in which people can interact without being tightly bound by geographical and time-based issues. All you need is an Internet connection to be able to be included.

Social area: The social area is purely an area for socializing. It has been placed on the roof of the VSSC building and it offers you great views of the entire UoB island. In this area you are able to chat and communicate with stutterers from around the world. There are numerous seats for your convenience.

The simulations: The simulations that are described below are very basic in nature at the moment but offer the stutterer the opportunity to practice any learned techniques and to face feared situations in a virtually safe environment. Technique and avoidance behaviours should of course be transferred and tackled in the real world but I can see the advantage of having a nice virtual test environment. During the simulations you may not want all people in the VSSC to hear you so you can choose not to use a microphone and to simply hear the speech-based interactions. You will then be able to respond to simulated prompts without time or peer-based pressure. All the simulations have a random element of what they will ask which will make it more challenging and less predictable for the user. The simulations are facilitated by Bots (short for "robots" which are like fake people) and are simply programmed at this stage. I have also included both genders to make it more realistic.

Simulations have been modeled to cover some major feared situations and include:

All these simulations offer a great opportunity to face possible fears and to gain confidence before taking your speech and any learned technique into the real world. Perhaps you have simply had a bad day speech wise and you wish to practice a little bit before you venture into real speaking situations again. In the future these simulations will be refined based on user feedback and funding opportunities.

The future of the VSSC is a bright one and I am hoping that the stuttering community embrace and use it. With further funding and collaboration I hope to look at officially holding regular support groups in the VSSC and to one day experiment with different types of techniques and therapies.

For the moment free membership is required to enter and interact with the building and other users in the VSSC. You can email or contact me to arrange membership. You will also have to become a free member of 2nd Life (http://www.2ndlife.com) to be able to use the VSSC. Feel free to contact me to join and engage in this fun and new environment. I present to you a possible future of support but it is up to you all to make it live and breathe.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2009.

SUBMITTED: September27, 2009
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