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Virtual Worlds Get Real

At SIGGRAPH, media wizards blur the lines.
August 29, 2001

Here’s an age-old question: what’s reality? Einstein told us that it’s relative, and the wizards of media are making it harder every day.

Some 35,000 movie makers, gamers, graphics artists, hardware developers and researchers gathered earlier this month at SIGGRAPH 2001 in Los Angeles to demonstrate just how good they’re getting at modeling the physical world-and then at going it one better.

The SIGGRAPH crew is enthusiastically dreaming up new product engineering techniques and processes, busloads of artificial personas, and all-day interactions in virtual worlds. And it’s not just for fun and games.

“More and more objects exist first in computer graphics and later in real form,” points out SIGGRAPH keynoter Danny Hillis, cofounder of Thinking Machines and former R&D head at Disney. “Computer graphics is, in fact, a way of seeing and defining-of creating the world. What [developers] are constructing is our future reality.”

The Artisans

At the show, Kaiser Electro-Optics of Carlsbad, CA, demonstrated how it blends 3-D scanning of objects with virtual-reality gear to enable an engineer to quickly prototype new product designs or a surgeon, say, to follow a fiber-optic camera through your spleen.

Eyematic of Inglewood, CA, demoed a scanner workstation and software that maps human features so precisely and quickly that real human faces can easily be put into computerized scenes. One day, an avatar that looks like you could be delivering your voicemail. For now, LifeFX Networks uses stand-ins, or “virtual people,” to do the talking for you.

The industry also keeps a lot of people dancing around in full body suits riddled with motion sensors to bring movement into virtual environments. While future applications might be industrial or military training simulators or even mental health therapies, it’s movies where these virtual techniques are being perfected.

For instance, Square Company used every graphics rendering and VR trick in the book to generate the very realistic characters and scenery in its full-length feature film, Final Fantasy. It also trusted artificial intelligence, text-to-speech and voice synthesis algorithms to let its virtual characters build their own histories and develop their own personalities.

Going Bot to the Web

Similar characters can be found today in Web bots-simpler graphically, but sometimes with quite complex behaviors.

“Characters need virtual feelings that they will manifest in action and conversation,” explains Barbara Hayes-Roth, CEO of Extempo Systems. Her Redwood City, CA, company creates personas that can interact freely with visitors to commercial Web pages.

While graphically less life-like than the high-budget creations of Final Fantasy, Extempo’s bots “think” better on their feet. As an AI demonstration project, Extempo created a next-generation prototype newscaster named Katherine. This character, Hayes-Roth claims, is vested with “a mind, identity, personality, job and creative skills.” Katherine responds appropriately in real time to a disparate array of questions, exhibits a sense of humor and, interestingly, a sense of outrage when she “feels” slighted.

Yet another bot newscaster has not only landed a job, but established some credibility. For the past 18 months, a chic computer-generated persona named Ananova has been reading the news online from Leeds, England. Ananova isn’t interactive like Katherine. But her voice and text-to-speech algorithms are convincing enough that she “has human characteristics ascribed to her,” reports Ananova Ltd. operations director Andrew Burgess.

Ananova has attracted a large human following and, as with real-world personalities, a few detractors. No worries, says Burgess, the company plans to hire more bots with different personalities.

All Virtual, All the Time

The next challenges for the wizards of media are also classic ones: time and space.

In the past, picking up a book, game or movie has required a relatively short commitment of time with an easily identifiable beginning and ending. In the future, virtual worlds will mingle with your usual workday activities and communications devices.

Right now, Ananova will ring you up on your cell phone whenever news of interest to you pops up.

More dramatically, Electronic Arts’ Majestic game boasts that it “infiltrates your life,” sweeping you up in an episodic suspense thriller about-well, who knows what; it changes daily.

To keep up, you must devote 30 to 40 minutes a day querying or receiving messages from Majestic’s bots, who parcel out clues via your telephone, fax, e-mail or Web radio broadcasts. Majestic’s pseudo-newspaper and phony Web pages are indistinguishable from those run by real-world enterprises; and it’s hard to tell the game bot from other players.

New technologies like instant messaging and mobile wireless devices promise to lend even more immediacy and frequency to these interactions. And gamers can’t wait for fuller deployment of the Bluetooth short-range wireless communication protocol and GPS tracking system for wireless devices so they can add a spatial element to their fantasies.

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