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The Intimate Machine

friendly Characters  
Image of Virtual Character
  Beat, the animated actor, responds to humans with lifelike verbal responses and gestures.

The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is constantly testing new ideas and new technologies - giving us a glimpse of the possibilities, however far off, their real-life applications may be. During his first visit to the lab in 1996, Alan Alda was introduced to Gandalf, a Robin Hood-like computer character designed to serve as Alan's guide to the solar system. Relying on a helmet and gloves that measured Alan's eye and hand gestures, as well as voice recognition software, the computer interacted with Alan as personally as possible. The idea behind Gandalf, explained the Media Lab's Justine Cassell, was to redefine computers as "actors in our social world," and not just boxes on a desktop.

Today, Gandalf has evolved into REA, a virtual employee of Virtual Realty, eager to provide personal tours for house-hunting clients. Alan can talk with REA without any of the sensors Gandalf required, thanks to cameras that record his body movements. As with Gandalf, REA has some trouble understanding Alan's deep voice, but after some brief chitchat she and Alan begin their virtual walk-through.

Photo of Child Playing with Interactive Playmate Sam
Geneva plays with Sam, a computer generated playmate who encourages storytelling and creativity in his human companions.  

Another program Cassell is developing allows children to play with a computer character named Sam. Sitting on either side of a special sensor-equipped dollhouse, Sam knows when his live playmate, Geneva, has placed dolls in a certain room and appears to "share" these toys with her. Sometimes Sam tells her a little story, or he listens when Geneva wants to share one of her own. Studies have shown that interacting with Sam inspires children to be more creative, which, for Cassell, is more than enough reason to keep on bridging the gap between people and computers.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
FRONTIERS Profile: Justine Cassell

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