USC experts prepare technologies to halt coronavirus

March 25, 2020

USC is a leading research university, and experts see a challenge and opportunity to slow the coronavirus outbreak. As researchers pivot in response, scientists and engineers marshal new technologies unavailable during past pandemics. Tools such as supercomputers, software apps, virtual reality, big data and algorithms are in play. Here’s what hope looks like from the laboratory.

Contact: Gary Polakovic (323) 527-7770 or

Virtual humans can help doctors and nurses respond

Sharon Mozgai, associate director of medical virtual reality (VR) at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).

“ICT has extensive experience in the development of virtual human and VR applications for humans that are very well suited to help with coronavirus,” Mozgai said.

She added:

  • The “battle buddy” virtual human agent the ICT developed for the military could be adapted for the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The agent can interpret data from wearable devices, analyze language responses, administer psychological assessment questions and respond accordingly.
  • It could be used to screen sick patients, monitor patient recovery or help hospital staff answer calls or patient questions.
  • The avatar could also provide comfort for people under quarantine.
  • ICT is developing a prototype virtual human agent for coronavirus — off-the-shelf technology awaiting funding partners.

Mozgai is an expert in organizational behavior, applied psychology, natural language processes and human-computer interaction with a focus on embodied virtual agents.



Lessons learned from cancer tracking helps fight coronavirus

Peter Kuhn, Dean’s Professor of Biological Sciences and professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and aerospace and mechanical engineering and a founding member of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Biosciences.

“We’ve teamed with a Bay Area company to make a phone app to record and analyze coughs and symptoms and compare it to an individual’s social interactions using GPS,” Kuhn said. “It’s all about using data from individuals that becomes a source we can use to help stop the spread of coronavirus.”

He added:

  • Work at USC’s Convergent Science Institute in Cancer (CSI-Cancer) laid a foundation for tracking health performance across populations.
  • CSI-Cancer is partnering with San Francisco-based HealthMode to develop the app.
  • The app would work by linking an individual’s symptoms to their previous locations and contacts.
  • The data can help identify sick people and prevent the spread of disease.
  • Privacy protection measures will be included in the app.

Kuhn is an expert in personalized medicine, wearable technology to monitor disease and global mapping of cancer.


Supercomputers are a powerful tool for humans vs. virus

Priya Darshan Vashishta, the Dean’s Professor in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Computer Science and Physics and Astronomy at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Supercomputers are 100 times faster than a decade ago. COVID-19 spike protein simulations in various scenarios can run in one day on current supercomputers, rather than weeks and months. Next year, we will have exascale supercomputers 100 times faster than today,” Vashishta said.

He added:

  • Supercomputing might help answer questions more quickly to find a vaccine for COVID-19.
  • Investing in high-end computing is a critical tool in many areas of technology and critical health-related research.

Vashishta is an expert in large-scale materials and bio-simulations on USC and Department of Engineering supercomputers and director of the Collaboratory for Advanced Computing. He can explain supercomputing simulations and how they compare to traditional computing in terms of speed and computational intensity.


Does a solution for coronavirus reside in your smartphone?

Bhaskar Krishnamachari, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems and the Internet of Things at theViterbi School of Engineering.

“We have to find a way to identify specific groups of people that should be practicing social distancing or get tested because we don’t have resources to test everyone and it may not be economically feasible to keep everyone at home for a long time. We need more precise instruments to see who should stay home or get tests, and a privacy-sensitive smartphone app for contact is one such instrument,” Krishnamachari said.

He added:

  • Smartphone apps could be developed to alert people when they’ve been near an infected person.
  • The app would alert its owner so the person can act by seeing a doctor or staying indoors.
  • Balancing need to protect public health and right to privacy is a challenge, which encryption and anonymization technologies can solve.
  • Better tracking and testing for COVID-19 helps allocate scarce resources, achieve more targeted treatment and gain better health protection.
  • The concept needs support of investors, local governments and healthcare companies.

Krishnamachari is an expert in  algorithms, protocols, and applications for next generation wireless networks.



Kids can learn coronavirus safety playing a VR video game

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality (VR) at the Institute for Creative Technologies and research professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

“We’re designing a low-cost coronavirus VR game for kids (COVID Escape Room), an obstacle course where safe behaviors – social distancing, washing your hands and covering a sneeze – get rewards. Kids learn to navigate the course and learn real-world behaviors to avoid coronavirus and do it in a fun way,” Rizzo said.

He added:

  • VR is already used to help people learn new behaviors.
  • Computer simulations have proven more effective than books in some teaching applications.
  • Kids and teens would need a VR device for about $200.
  • The game, now in design phase and in need of funding or partners, could be adapted to other health needs.
  • Parallel development will occur with web and mobile-based versions.

Rizzo is an expert in VR and mental health, rehabilitation processes and cognitive-behavior therapy.



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