Friday, 05 Dec, 2008 Science

Sympathetic Virtual Humans Could Be Part of Daily Life


French scientists claim that in the near future people will be able to share their emotions with virtual humans. The latest invention may contribute to the development of long-term relationships between real humans and virtual agents.

The lead researcher of the study, Professor Catherine Pelachaud, director of research of Paris Institute of Technology, recently presented her new project at a conference of the ARC Network in Human Communication Science, which was held in Sydney.

Together with her team Pelachaud works on the creation of virtual humans, which scientists dubbed Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs). Scientists say that ECAs are able to act autonomously in a virtual environment. In addition, these virtual humans can communicate using different facial expressions, head motions, as well as hand gesticulations and gaze. It is worth mentioning that the French scientist managed to create the first virtual human back in 1994, when she worked together with Professor Justine Cassell, a researcher from the United States.

After the initial project, scientists continuously looked forward to developing virtual humans which would be more expressive, so they could easily adapt to the emotions of real humans. According to Pelachaud, people often expect a lot from virtual humans, which is why they quickly lose interest in them due to the fact the till now virtual humans were not very "human." She has the goal to creating virtual agents that would be able to attract real people and maintain their interest.

Project Semaine - Testing Humans

One of the latest inventions is entitled Semaine. Scientists working on this particular project are developing four distinct agents with four different personalities. Researchers are currently testing the reaction of real humans when they are involved in communication with virtual agents, who might focuse differently on solving certain problems, being aggressive, gloomy, positive or pragmatic.

The French scientist considers that Semaine may provide valuable information for creating virtual humans, which could be used for teaching and medical programs, as well as for developing virtual characters in entertainment.

Sympathetic Virtual Friends

In the related research, French scientists are working on the development of a virtual agent that could empathize with real people. An agent could be taught, for instance, to identify via webcam the emotion of an individual looking at the monitor. Thus the virtual human can react according to a person's emotion. Pelachaud believes that a sympathizing agent could be used for anyone seeking information from the agent. In case the virtual helper gets it wrong it may identify the human becoming upset and might show empathy through non-verbal signs, thus reducing user's frustration.

"Having an agent that shows empathy can enhance the relationship between a user and an agent. The user may still not get the information, but at least they won't feel so negative from the interaction," says Pelachaud.

In addition, as part of another project, entitled CALLAS, the French scientists are looking forward to create virtual humans that could be used in interactive televisions and storytelling. One of their latest inventions is a prototype that shows the emotional interaction between the real audience and the virtual agent. The latter acts like a virtual member of the audience, being able to relate to the human audience through webcam and mic.

"The agent, through its participation of watching the movie and its display of emotion could enhance the emotional experience of the audience," says Pelachaud. She added that the human and the virtual audience respond to a virtual scenario, which involves a second virtual agent. The second virtual human walks around a kitchen where different objects randomly do fear-provoking things. As these things (such as a knife that all of a sudden stars flying towards them) take place, both real and virtual members of the audience respond with fear, and the virtual agent in the scene shows the same reaction.

The study of the French scientists is funded by the French government and European Union.

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