Will virtual humans replace machines?

How many times have you been rebuffed by a machine, be it a vending machine swallowing your cash but keeping its soda, or a ticket machine refusing to give you a subway ticket in a foreign country? It happened to me, and I’m sure it happened to you too, and it’s very irritating. This is why German researchers are developing the concept of virtual humans to replace these annoying machines. These virtual humans, which will interact with you through speech and gestures could be used as ticket sellers, but also as teachers for students taking e-learning courses.

Several research institutions are working on this concept including the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics (IGD).

“The idea behind the virtual character is to design the human-computer interface as naturally as possible”, explains Christian Knöpfle, head of Virtual Reality at the IGD.

As an example, below is a picture of several virtual humans on stage during a trade show (Credit: Fraunhofer IGD). This illustration was extracted from Der virtuelle Mensch (in German).

As you can guess, it will be difficult to achieve a convincing result.

The requirements placed on virtual humans are enormous: they need to interact socially, communicate verbally and non-verbally – in other words via speech, gestures and facial expressions, have a human, pleasant appearance and be credible in dialogue with the user. […] To achieve this, researchers are developing various modules to generate dialog, understand speech and for graphics output, interfacing these through a web-based approach.

Below you can see that the Fraunhofer researchers have paid great attention to realism with the hairstyles of two virtual humans (Credit: Fraunhofer IGD). Here is a link to a larger version.

The Virtual Human web page gives additional details.

With virtual humans a completely new quality of interactive systems can be achieved: instead of interacting by menus and input forms the dialogue with the computer will take place in a intuitive way using natural language and gestures. The virtual character confronts the user as a person, who is able to give intelligent and goal-oriented assistance and guidance through a work routine. Depending on the particular application one or more virtual characters take over different roles, mostly as they occur in teamwork or in natural discussion situations.

And what virtual humans will be able to do?

Potential applications for virtual humans are enormous: one area involves tutor support for students on e-learning courses, with the virtual human answering questions and giving help with problems — making the learning process on and with the computer a more enjoyable experience. Human-like characters are also ideal for dealing with issues that involve training social skills: for example a railway official can practice dealing with difficult customers with the help of the virtual human.

But when will these friendly servants replace stubborn machines? The Fraunhofer IGD doesn’t give any answers, even if some prototypes have been demonstrated during trade shows.

Finally, if you want to know more about this project, you can read this paper from 2004 called “Virtual Human: Storytelling & Computer Graphics for a Virtual Human Platform” (PDF format, 10 pages, 797 KB).

Sources: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, March 2006; and various web sites.