Professor Hill reflects on service, storytelling and his favorite virtual human to fight PTSD.
Randall Hill, Jr. (M.S. CS ’87, Ph.D. CS ’93) has been called many things.
West Point graduate. U.S. Army officer in artillery and military intelligence. Research professor in USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science. Executive director of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, the university’s famed research institute for mixed reality, virtual humans and Hollywood computer graphics.
But also, this – storyteller.
For Veteran’s Day 2021, here are a few stories, memories and reflections from a Trojan veteran.
“Veterans have lived the values of duty, honor and country, and they are some of the best friends you can ever have. My ask of all Trojans is to do more than just say ‘thank you for your service.’ Rather, make a friend of a veteran. You won’t regret it.”
When you have a moment to pause and reflect on Veteran’s Day, what do you think about?
Every Veteran’s Day I think about the soldiers with whom I served and the many friends I made at West Point and in the Army during the Cold War.
I also think about the service members and veterans who deployed multiple times over the last 20 years. While I found my own Army experiences to be intense, being deployed into a combat zone takes it to whole different level. I feel humbled by their service and their sacrifices.
I also think about the fact that I have seldom found in the civilian world the same unity of purpose and level of commitment to accomplishing a mission as I found in the military. I miss that high level of teamwork and camaraderie.
How will you observe the day this year? Any rituals or traditions?
I will reach out to my West Point classmates and Army friends with a greeting and reminder that I care deeply about them.
Through social media, I am connected to hundreds of other veterans, making it quite easy for us to recall funny stories and hardships that forged the bonds of friendship that have lasted across the years. In recent years, my classmates have become much more sentimental, perhaps since so many are retiring. We collectively reflect on the impact West Point and the Army had on us – from the formative experiences we had as college students, all the way through our experiences in the Army and afterward.
It certainly affected my own career as I have been working to help the Army my entire adult life.
Your father, Randall Hill, Sr., was in the military. What stories did he share with you growing up?
During training at Ft. Hood, dad was designated as the safety officer for another unit while they practiced shooting down drones being tugged by radio-controlled aircraft.
One of the guns misfired and a 40 mm shell got stuck in the breach of the gun. It was dad’s job to clear the shell, so he went into the turret with his NCO (non-commissioned officer). They unsuccessfully used a pry bar to try get the shell loose, but the shell had burst in the chamber and was mangled to a point that it was wedged in place.
Next, they opened a chamber known as the suicide hole on top of the breach to see whether they could access the shell this way. As it turned out, the bags of propellent powder had not burned, and, after opening the suicide hole, the propellent exploded — perhaps due to the heat in the gun tube. The explosion caused the shell casing to be ejected. Fortunately, neither one of them was seriously injured, but dad lost his hearing for three days. He collected the brass shell casing from under the vehicle and kept it as a memento of the close call.
Not wanting to be bothered, dad never went to the hospital to be checked out after the accident. The shell casing served as an ash tray for many years, and it came in handy a couple of years ago when dad went to the VA (Veteran’s Affairs) because he was losing his hearing. The only proof of the accident in 1956 was this shell casing, and the VA gave him some disability pay and hearing aids.
After graduating West Point in 1978, you were an officer in the U.S. Army for six years. Tell me a story from this time.
I was sent to an artillery detachment in northern Greece near Thessaloniki for a one-year unaccompanied assignment, which meant I could not officially bring my wife with me.
This was during the Cold War, and it was also during a time when a terrorist group known as the Red Brigades was active in the region, killing and kidnapping many people in Italy, including the abduction of U.S. Army Brigadier General James Dozier. This set us on edge because there were other groups operating in Greece that resented our presence there, and who assassinated a couple of different U.S. military attaches. I would routinely drive through towns that had signs that said “Remove the American Bases of Death.”
Our artillery detachment was embedded with a Greek Army unit, and we worked with them on a pretty serious security mission that involved 24/7 guard duty and drilling.
This all relates to my current job in that as a result of my experience in Greece, I decided I would like to become a foreign area officer, which led me to going back to the U.S. the next year for training and assignment at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.
When I arrived at my new assignment, I discovered my buddy, (fellow West Point graduate) Jeff Wike, was already there, and he helped me get assigned to a software development office with him. I knew nothing about software or computers at that point — at West Point, we programmed in Fortran on punch cards – blah! But very few people had those skills yet, and we had a boss who was willing to help us learn.
He started us out playing some simple text-based computer games: “Adventure” and “Zork,” which are now ancient classics. In fact, I recently went to a Game Developer’s Conference that had a session that was a retrospective on “Zork.”
After a few weeks of “Zork,” we were hooked on microcomputers and the next step was to begin learning a simple database programming language, dBase II. At the same time, we were working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which was supporting our office with some technical work. Jeff and I traveled to JPL numerous times, and, after one of those trips, we received an out of the blue offer to go to work there. Jeff and I decided to take the offer and were honorably discharged from the Army the same day in June 1984. We joined JPL shortly afterward.
Why did you come to USC for your M.S. and Ph.D. starting in 1984?
JPL had a very generous tuition support program, and they offered DEN (USC Viterbi’s Distance Education Network) classes over the television network that we could watch at the lab’s education center in La Canada. Eager to improve our computer science skills, we enrolled in the M.S. program in computer science at USC. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to apply for the Ph.D. program and was accepted. Since I continued to work while taking classes, it was a long road to graduation, and I can thank JPL for supporting me throughout the process.
Two years after completing my Ph.D., I joined ISI and started my work at USC. I joined ICT in 2000 and became the executive director in 2006. Meanwhile, my friend worked his way up to become CTO of DreamWorks Animation. We still watch the Army-Navy together.
Tell us about some of the current projects that USC ICT is involved with that has particular application toward veterans.
The BRAVEMIND program is a virtual reality system designed to assist people who have experienced PTSD to heal from the mental and emotional wounds of war. Based on a clinically proven approach called exposure therapy, BRAVEMIND enables a veteran or service member to revisit the context where they experienced trauma. Under the supervision of a trained therapist, the participant talks through what they are feeling, and, over the course of eight to 10 sessions, gradually habituates to the stimuli that would have previously set off a cascade of difficult emotions. The system has been independently clinically tested and proven to be effective.
ICT also developed a job interview rehearsal system called VITA4Vets, which stands Virtual Interactive Training Agent for Veterans. Service members making the transition to civilian life may not have experience going through a job interview. This system provides a variety of experiences with different kinds of virtual interviewers and questions, ranging from easy to uncomfortable. It gives the participant a chance to anticipate the types of questions they may hear in an interview and then allow them to practice a response.
USC ICT has been building on its previous work with virtual avatars of Holocaust survivors to now capture the stories of current servicemen and women. What can you share about this?
To deal with the issues of sexual harassment and assault, the Army implemented a program called SHARP which stands for Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention. Working with the SHARP Academy at Ft. Leavenworth, ICT developed a number of training systems to help victim advocates, sexual assault response coordinators, command teams, and bystanders. Building on the Holocaust survivor work, we applied the same technologies and techniques to create a system known as DS2A – Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault.
In our first DS2A system, we interviewed a male who had been assaulted as a part of a hazing ritual while deployed in Iraq. This system has trained thousands of SHARP professionals and leaders. We are currently in the process of interviewing a female survivor of sexual assault for the next iteration of the system. The survivors tell powerful stories that have a much greater impact than a PowerPoint presentation, creating the potential for empathy and a greater awareness of the problem, from the incident all the way through the aftermath, which could lead to years of emotional pain.
ICT has created a number of unique virtual humans over the years. Tell me about one of your favorite virtual humans and how real veterans responded to it. Any feedback that stayed with you?
Using multimodal perception, Ellie tracks facial expressions, body language, the tone of the voice and spoken language, and gently asks questions meant to put the participant at ease and encourage them to share how they are doing. Ellie was tested with hundreds of veterans, and it was impressive to see the reaction of people who interacted with this virtual persona. Ellie has a very soothing voice and the questions are open-ended, allowing for the participant to share experiences and feelings.
The startling result of the study was that, in many cases, people are more willing to share their trauma with Ellie than with a human therapist, and this appeared to be because she was not judgmental. It is very moving to hear about participants who broke down in tears while sharing their experiences with Ellie.
In my own interactions with Ellie, the planned 15-minute session stretched to 45 minutes, which was a powerful testament to me of the power of listening by a non-judgmental and empathetic being.
You’re a computer scientist who became involved in storytelling. How did that evolution happen? And why is that particular combination of technology and storytelling meaningful to veterans?
Humans are wired to enjoy and remember stories.
Storytelling is the fundamental way humans share their experiences and knowledge with others, and we can easily become immersed in a story, whether it is in a book or a movie. I have been an avid reader and moviegoer all my life, and it was after I joined ICT in 2000 and began to interact with professional storytellers that I came to have an appreciation for how technology and story could be integrated to create an effective learning experience.
Around 2003, I led a project called Army Excellence in Leadership (AXL) where we made some movies that were used as case studies for Army leaders. We developed the first version of the interactive interview with a human, which foreshadowed our work with Holocaust survivors. After watching the film, class participants could ask questions of the various characters in the story, who would explain their thoughts and motives, giving greater insight into the lessons of the case. This system was used extensively in the Army and at West Point. After watching officers interact with AXL, my takeaway was that well told stories have a much more profound impact on an audience than just listening to the facts of a case. Stories engage both the mind and the emotions, making memories that stick.
If you could make one ask of all Trojans on Veteran’s Day, what would it be?
The veterans among us are typically humble and quiet about their experiences in the armed forces. These are people who volunteered to serve our country in some of the most dangerous and intense regions of the world, and many bear the wounds of war, whether they are visible or not.
Veterans have lived the values of duty, honor and country, and they are some of the best friends you can ever have. My ask of all Trojans is to do more than just say “thank you for your service.” Rather, make a friend of a veteran. You won’t regret it.
By Adam Smith