Some people talk to their computers when they're bored, frustrated or confused.
But soon, computers may be talking back, chatting about everything from the local weather to how much money an account holder has left in the bank.
Several software companies are experimenting with a range of helpful virtual characters. The creators of these animated talking heads aim to change the way we look at the Web, computers and technology in general.
Leading the way has been Ananova, a green-haired British female newscaster, or Webcaster, created by Digital Animations Group and introduced in April to broadcast live international news over the Internet. "The idea for Ananova really came from the Press Association [in Britain] in the latter half of last year," says Mike Hambly, CEO of Digital Animations, which is between Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, describing what many view as the genesis of online virtual character animation.
Head, a ghoulish, animated head that will appear on British television. One of Ananova's fans, who calls himself Spider and helps run the U.K.-based Ananova fan site Club Ananova Cyberspot, says that the best part of virtual Webcasters is that they allow computer users to check the news at any time of the day. "I think that as the technology improves and the division between Net and TV blurs and one becomes the other, Ananova (and her progeny) will be the newscasters," Spider says.
Of course, while millions of viewers watch CNN to get the latest international news, they still regularly view their local news to see what is going on closer to home.
In much the same fashion, Los Angeles-based V-Star Inc. bills itself as a fast, low-tech, local alternative to the splashy, bandwidth-intensive international news served up by Ananova. "People talk so much about the Web being global, and that's great," says Geoff Nathanson, manager of communications for V-Star. "But there's still a lot of people who care about what's going on close to home and they want to see it presented in a really unique way, and we do that." Currently, V-Star features a program called 1KTVLA that offers local Los Angeles news via a variety of computer-animated characters. The human characters, such as Paula DeAngeles for business news, Corkie McCloud for weather and Mark Fields for sports, report the serious news, while far-out, cartoonish characters such as Max Boarder offer late-show-style humor.
Users order a free CD-ROM through 1KTV's Web site, www.1KTV.com The disc contains most of the graphics and programs used to create the Webcast.
1KTV then transmits, at a user's command, essentially a small text file containing the scripts the characters read. Within the text are cues telling the characters what emotion or tone to adopt for a particular piece of news. "Even people who have a 14.4 [Kbps] dial-up connection, which a lot of people still do, can get shows that are full-motion animated shows with talking characters," Mr. Nathanson says. "And those shows will load and play instantly." V-Star plans to roll out 1KTV in 10 U.S. regions over the next 18 months, enabling viewers to quickly access animated local newscasts over the Web whenever they want. "If the broadband promise comes to play way down the road, we'll already have an audience," says Mr. Nathanson. "Right now dial-up is just so ultra-dominant that we're real happy that we have so many people who are able to access our shows and get a rich media experience. So that's kind of cool." As virtual Webcasters have evolved, so have virtual helpers on the computer. They now go beyond the often infuriating paper clip character Clippit, spawned by Microsoft for use in Word and other Office programs.
Haptek, a Santa Cruz, Calif., company, is fine-tuning what it calls Virtual Friends, while Virtual Personalities, based in Los Angeles, is preparing to blanket the Web with the company's Verbot technology.
Rather than requiring a software installation, these characters will pop up automatically when users switch on their systems and access the Web.
Virtual Friends, such as Marlon, will be fully animated faces or people programmed into Web sites and will guide users through the site, serving as online tutors, salespeople and customer service representatives.
While Virtual Friends will answer traditional "help" questions such as how to get a download or where a particular hyperlink is, their most innovative feature will be to respond emotionally and intuitively to user input. The goal, says Chris Shaw, CEO, chairman and co-founder of Haptek, is to create graphically detailed characters that can spontaneously react to new situations rather than having to constantly access a database of preprogrammed responses.
"The emotional responses - the sort of gut stuff that we do as people automatically while we're talking that may not have anything to do with our particular line of conversation but makes us seem real - that's part of what we automate," he says. Mr. Hambly says that Digital Animations' character design is similarly ambitious. "For instance, if you have a virtual character on your PC, it would be able to see you walk into the room" using a camera hooked up to the computer, Mr. Hambly says. "And if there were multiple people in the room, they would be able to recognize, just as you and I would do, that there are multiple people in the room, and they would be able to detect from the voices which of those people were talking." The model for interactivity found in Haptek's Virtual Friends, says Mr. Shaw, is the latest crop of fast, interactive computer games that allow the player to explore every part of the game environment, rather than limiting a gamer to a set, linear path. "You don't choose path A, B or C," says Mr. Shaw. "You go anywhere you want, and the processor figures out where the heck you are and what you're looking at. That's true interactivity applied to navigation. We, with these characters, apply that sort of true interactivity to communication." To show off the flexibility and interactivity of these characters, Haptek is working with Intel to create a character called Eve who runs on Intel's next-generation Pentium 4 processor.
Don Kipper, president and chief operating officer of Virtual Personalities, says that moving computer technology from the realm of specialized users and programmers to a simple, streamlined interface is pivotal.
Virtual Personalities' Verbots, much like Haptek's Virtual Friends, provide a way for users to interact with computers in a manner closer to human conversation than to the traditional text or even point-and-click interfaces. "Not that many people across all strata of society know how to communicate with technology," Mr. Kipper says. "Everybody knows how to talk to another person. So what our Verbots and their technology provide is an interface, a bridge, between people and technology." Verbots, such as the female character Tokimi, will function initially as smart guides and hosts to Web sites. A site's Verbot will welcome surfers by name, remember any transactions they may have made so it can suggest related items and lead them through the various channels on the site. "Some Web sites are very, very complex and, to the casual visitor to the site, they can be intimidating," says Mr. Kipper. "By virtue of that, all of the great resources the site provides will not be accessible to the average visitor." Beyond the Internet, Mr. Kipper envisions Verbots being stored on smart cards or functioning as sort of virtual butlers in high-tech homes.
When visiting a foreign city, for example, a traveler would insert the card containing his Verbot into a computer kiosk at his hotel. The Verbot would pop up and offer local restaurant information, shopping tips, calendar and appointment reminders, and serve as a virtual tour guide, all while checking the traveler into a room and calling a bellboy to come get the luggage.
Built into a home, Verbots will respond to voice commands to turn on the lights as owners drive up, flip on the TV as they get ready for bed and set the VCR to record favorite shows as they fall asleep.
Voice recognition will make these characters as human as possible, say Mr. Shaw and Mr. Kipper, but making them helpful and useful, not just entertaining, is the primary concern. "The road to character-controlled interfaces is littered with things like the [Microsoft] paper clip," says Mr. Shaw. "Everybody I talk to about the paper clip hates it. If you look at it without having to interface with it all the time, it's cute. But the fact is it comes up when you don't want it. People want to get their work done. Cuteness gets you nothing." "The real intent is to have these things be able to relate to people and people to them," Mr. Kipper says.
Yet while some of these characters, such as V-Star's Webcasters, run fine on dial-up modems and use existing animation techniques, the complex interactive characters of Digital Animations, Haptek and Virtual Personalities will require a more sophisticated technological platform than currently exists. "Yes, the pipe does have to be big," says Mr. Hambly. "We're reaching the limits of what we can actually deliver." Mr. Hambly also says that animation techniques, artificial intelligence, synthesized voice recognition and output all need refinement to reach the seamless interface that people are going to demand. "How many years this is going to be is open to debate," he says. "But some of us think it will happen much sooner rather than later."
For more information
The following Web sites have additional information about online animated characters: www.ananova.com, www.clubananova.com, www.haptek.com and www.vperson.com