In Depth: How virtual characters are getting smart

CNETAnalysis: Online gaming platforms and web forums have used avatars for years, and graphical representations of humans are hardly new, but the wider concept of the avatar is finally waking up. By morphing into life-size, artificially intelligent and customisable platforms, personal and even corporate avatars could soon replace receptionists, sales clerks and even replicate your colleagues in both real and virtual environments. And the avatar revolution has already started on your smartphone. Origins of avatars Forget the James Cameron movie. At its most basic the avatar – a Sanskrit word from Hinduism that means god appearing in living form – is, practically-speaking, just a decorated, personalised caricature that’s most often associated with joining some kind of virtual platform. Doctored head-shots that appear as slightly better-looking animations, creations assembled by choosing noses, eyebrows, eyes and chins from a suite, or just plain stolen images of other people or things are typically how avatars are constructed. Massive multi-user role-playing games like World of Warcraft use visual representations of users – avatars – and so do social virtual environments like Facebook and Twitter, Second Life, instant messaging and myriad online forums. It’s not much of a leap to a situation where we all roam the internet as one single avatar – something Gravatar is trying to achieve with its portable image – though the idea of having several online identities is something that appeals to many. This, however, is only half the story, because although avatars to represent us humanoids are set to expand in their use, the world is about to become populated with avatars of computers and machines, too. Take the idea of the avatar to its logical conclusion and the idea of remote working could be a no-brainer; if you need to meet colleague, just fire-up their avatars and you can suddenly be in a virtual office! . But the avatar as a representation of a human has limited use – and it can just as well be applied to a much more useful machine. Voice recognition software like Siri doesn’t have a face yet, just a voice, but work is going on to develop avatar-based apps that deliver personal assistant-style services in a totally customisable way. The rise of the robots Take the simply-named Guide, an app for iOS, Android and desktop browsers – currently taking beta registrations – that seeks to feed you the information you already seek, but in a more convenient way. YouTube : Based on the premise that almost everything in a local TV news bulletin is completely useless to you, Guide attempts to deliver you only what you’re interested in. As in this example on YouTube, Guide puts an lip-syncing avatar of your choosing (even a film star) in front of you as a kind of web concierge, to read out, say, last night’s football reports on the BBC news website (or anything with an RSS feed) followed by the status updates of your favourite Facebook contacts. YouTube : Chuck in something about your line of work – the latest on world markets if you’re in finance, micro-local weather if you’re a farmer, etc – along with local traffic news, a couple of celebs’ Tweets, and the important emails in your Inbox – and Guide could be something genuinely bite-size and useful. Designed to include multimedia content, too, rather than just text-based news, Guide will be available through web browsers and smartphone apps, though whether it’s trying to give you what you need more easily, or simply feeding your pathetic addiction to your ‘digital life’ is debatable. Another avatar-based idea is Winston , a live (though US-only) app that’s described as a ‘a whole new way to interact with your personal web’. Steering clear o! f the sea! rch engine functions of Siri, Winston aggregates your oft-visited sources of news and social media, and presents them via a voice – interestingly, with a British accent. Hands-free apps in connected cars do a similar thing in the name of safety. Simulated social interaction The use of computer-generated avatars in place of human news readers might seem like nothing more than convenient and fun, but there is some evidence that we’re beginning to trust machines more than each other. How many times have you sat having a conversation with friends when a fact is disputed; before long someone always says, ‘why don’t we just ask the internet?’ and pulls out a smartphone. Conversation over. A recent study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio suggests that depression symptoms in 18-25-year-olds may be significantly reduced when they interact with a computerised avatar of a doctor or consultant rather than the real thing. And the computerised avatar really is coming. FIONA (Framework for Interactive-services Over Natural-conversational Agents) is an online assistant for designing avatars the next generation of virtual avatars. This is where developers, researchers, companies, geeks and designers from around the world can upload their own ‘killer’ feature, called ‘sparks’; a specific behaviour, an amazing character or the best of someone’s knowledge on any given topic. The goal is a higher form of artificial intelligence that can understand us, as well as serve us. FIONA is the brainchild of Spain-based Adele Robots, though the likes of Chatbots , Nuance , Verbio and Ivona are involved, as are several universities. “An avatar, also called a Virtual Assistant or Embodied Conversational Agent, is a cartoonish yet realistic representation of a person who you can talk to, and answers you like a human,” says Luc

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