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Once more please, with feeling


Animated characters on the Internet are often soulless. They stare, speak monotonously and have limited facial expression. More realistic characters are being tested by a European team of researchers. Could such enhanced characters benefit e-commerce and build better Web-based communities?

Most of us interact with our computers by punching keys. But the time is ripe for a more sophisticated and realistic interface. One way forward is to program characters known as avatars. They can be given a ’personality’ and sent out onto the Web to react with other characters or to search for information. Unfortunately, these characters mainly communicate with us through text input/output.

The latest avatars, known as Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs), come with more human characteristics. Though still cartoonish in appearance, they can also simulate communication amongst themselves.

"ECAs can communicate at several levels," says Brigitte Krenn. She is project coordinator for the IST programme’s NECA (Net Environments for Embodied Emotional Conversational Agents) project, now completing research into ’multimodal’ communication for synthetic personalities - including voice modulation, body posture and gestures.

"We simulate embodied conversation, by generating stories involving animated characters who work with each other," she adds. "They have credible personalities and affective behaviour." That is, they can arouse emotions or affection in us, the viewers.

The project calls on technologies such as speech synthesis, situation-based generation of natural language, and modelling of emotions and personality. The results feature in two demonstrators on the project’s website.

eShowroom demonstrates a new way of presenting products online. Two characters - a seller and buyer - simulate a car-sales dialogue. The goal is to entertain the website visitor while providing useful information through the characters’ conversation. Before the conversation starts, each character must be programmed in terms of its personality (how friendly, polite, and so on). The visitor also selects the importance accorded to various car features - the vehicle’s sportiness, prestige and impact on the environment. Then the characters are set loose to interact with one another on-screen. They talk, raising their voice if annoyed, and make appropriate facial expressions and gestures.

"Whatever the presentation - which depends on the parameters selected, the content is ultimately the same," says Krenn. She sees this approach as a way of combining fun with information, typically lacking in today’s box-ticking e-commerce applications.

The second demonstrator includes an existing virtual community known as Spittelberg, which NECA helped to revive. It uses the same technology for animating a conversation, but takes a different approach. "Our community has real people in it, each represented by an avatar, with email and chatroom facilities," says Krenn, who has several alter-egos of her own there. You create your avatar and send it out to interact with others. The process can lead to new friendships between the avatars and eventually among their creators.

"Our characters are still cartoon-like, because even the best speech synthesis and computer-generated animation are far from real," notes Krenn. But she believes that injecting a little more humanity into computer interfaces would make the Internet a more interesting and attractive place.

Brigitte Krenn
Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (ÖFAI)
Freyung 6/3/1a
A-1010 Vienna
Tel: +43-153246212
Fax: +43-1-42779631

Tara Morris | IST Results
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