One recent morning, Dale E. Olsen impersonated a U.S. Customs inspector inside an airport as he interviewed Maria Rodriguez, a young Mexico City woman visiting Los Angeles. While watching for signs of nervousness, he asked to see her passport and quizzed her on details about her visit to the country.

The questions were designed to determine if Rodriguez had smuggled drugs or other contraband into the country. But Rodriguez was actually an actor in a computer simulation used to teach interviewing skills.

The program is largely the brainchild of Olsen, founder and chief executive officer of Simmersion LLC, a Columbia-based technology start-up firm. It is one of several human simulation software systems the company has produced to mimic real-life situations such as an interview of a job candidate, the counseling of a suicidal Army infantryman and the medical diagnosis of a patient.

Olsen developed the technology while working at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, or APL, in Laurel. In October, he opened an 8,000-square-foot office in Town Center with seven employees. Simmersion's clients include the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, Olsen said.

Olsen said Simmersion's technology is more realistic than traditional simulations programs that offer multiple-choice responses or other training programs that use animated characters.

"That's not nearly as engaging as a free-form conversation," Olsen said. "We're much higher end and realistic."

Simmersion's technology allows trainees to communicate face to face with a human simulation using a list of hundreds of questions and a microphone voice-enabled system or a computer mouse, Olsen said. For each scenario, the computer-simulated actor reacts to specific questions, becoming evasive or angry, for instance. In some cases, the actor may choose to walk out of an interview.

The price for a basic software system starts at $200,000. The company has focused on selling to government agencies but plans to eventually market the system to private industry, Olsen said. Simmersion employees are developing systems to train employees about cultural differences. In addition, they are creating a training program simulating courtroom testimony. Simmersion also expects to double its staff during the next year and team up with other businesses, Olsen said.

"Some of our partners will be training companies who will enhance classroom training and e-learning companies who will make their training more engaging," Olsen said.

Olsen said he has drawn on his own experiences in detecting suspicious behavior and deception. As a law enforcement programs development director at APL, he helped develop a patented automated scoring system for polygraph tests. The system is used by law enforcement officials across the nation.

Simmersion's first program was designed to help train new FBI agents. It simulated an interview with "Mike Simmen," a bank loan officer suspected of stealing $40,000 from his employer. Simmen's mood changes depending on the questions the trainee asks him from a scripted list. A poorly worded question, for instance, may annoy Simmen and make him reluctant to continue the interview. After the simulated session, trainees are given a numerical score and critiqued.

Robert Garland Phillips Jr., a former FBI unit chief who evaluated training programs for the FBI Academy in Quantico, learned about Olsen's technology in the late 1990s when Olsen and other APL scientists visited the academy. The two paired up with other APL scientists to develop the "Mike Simmen" PC-based simulation. Among trainees, the system became almost like a computer game that students could play in their spare time, Phillips said.

"There are other kinds of skills that are just as important, if not more important than being able to shoot," Phillips said. "One of those skills is interviewing. Everyone knows to talk to people, but that particular set of skills can be elevated to a very high level. You're looking for all sorts of verbal and nonverbal clues as to whether they're telling the truth."

One of Simmersion's programs is being adapted to desktop computers to train U.S. Customs agents and canine officers to detect drug smugglers and other criminals, said Robert E. White, assistant director of field operations with the U.S. Customs Service Academy in Glynco, Ga.

"We wanted a program that was specifically designed for us," White said. "Customs inspectors look for a larger variety of signals, what someone is wearing, objects that a person is carrying. This is a tool we feel would be very beneficial to inspectors in the field."

Simmersion Chief Executive Officer Dale E. Olsen, left, and Chief Financial Officer Ken Bissett show off the software their company developed for training with the use of a simulated human model.Dale E. Olsen demonstrates software that projects a simulated human model on wall near him.