New UAlberta-developed augmented reality app helps Canadians manage mental health during COVID-19

YOU-AR-OK provides users with a virtual companion to help them reflect on how they’re feeling in a time of uncertainty and stress

Amanda Anderson - 3 December 2020

In a time of isolation and limited social interaction, how do we support our mental health?

This is a question University of Alberta researchers asked themselves – and they think they have the answer.

YOU-AR-OK, an augmented reality app that prompts users to think about how they’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, is the latest innovation to come out of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s Rehabilitation Robotics Lab (RRL).

This project comes at a time when 56 per cent of Canadians say their mental health is being negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Valery Dufour, one of the app's developers, said this solution is much needed now that in-person social interactions are few and far between.

“Social distancing and staying at home for long periods of time can harm people’s mental and physical health. We decided to create something everyone would have access to – an augmented reality solution that would not only combat loneliness, but also allow individuals to reflect and adjust their habits in these uncertain times.”

The idea for the app came about when the lab was approached by My Viva Inc., an online platform that offers individualized health plans based on specific client needs. Their hope was to create a digital solution to help keep people’s minds healthy.

The app, which officially launched in November 2020, features a ‘buddy’ – an avatar known as Yaro the dog – who guides users with a series of questions for self-reflection: How are you feeling? What did you eat today? Did you get much sleep?

Once they open their application and set up their account, they will be able to chat with their very own Yaro, who is transported into their physical space using augmented reality. 

“Our goal is to provide people with a friend,” explained Dufour. “Some of my friends had told me that they often speak to their pets about their day while at home, finding comfort in that companionship. I thought, ‘Why not translate that into this project, to help them feel that same comfort while also managing their mental health?’”

Nathanial Maeda, a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and one of the members of the RRL who managed the project said that because the lab is so passionate about rehabilitation and wellness, collaborating on this project was a no-brainer.

“We’re interested in pushing the boundaries around virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and most of all, authentic human interaction.

“With this project, we were thrilled to be able to produce something that would aid people and provide them with the tools they need to manage their own mental health,” said Maeda.

Dufour said that she believes this app will be a big help to Canadians currently feeling the effects of rising COVID-19 case numbers, especially during the holiday season.

“I think people need this app because it really caters to the individual. It provides an unassuming, caring artificially intelligent buddy who helps users reflect without fear of judgment,” she said. “We hope that this can open the door for users to venture into their own lives and recognize mental health patterns. From there, they will be able to access the help they need or make changes based on their own findings.”

The free app can be downloaded through the Google Play or Apple app stores. 


YOU-AR-OK is a collaboration between the University of Alberta, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s Rehabilitation Robotics Lab and ELIXR Simulations, My Viva Inc.Roche and ST Innovations.