Virtual Babyz
Interactive Installation

Andrew Stern - lead designer, behavior engineer, original concept
Adam Frank - design consultant, animation design, original concept
Ben Resner - character design tools and engineering
PF.Magic / Mindscape, Novato, CA

In her recent book, "Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future Of Narrative in Cyberspace", Janet Murray suggests that interactive virtual characters "may mark the beginning of a new narrative format", taking on the task of redefining what it means to be human in the face of artificial intelligence. This notion is fundamental to the design and implementation of Virtual Babyz, a new CD-ROM program completed in October 1999.

In Virtual Babyz, the user plays with and takes care of a group of autonomous virtual babies that live in a virtual house on the computer desktop. The Babyz are real-time 3D animated characters rendered in a cartoon-like style. Using a mouse to control a hand-shaped cursor, users can directly touch, tickle, and pick up the Babyz, as well as pick up and use toys and objects in the virtual house. Through the use of voice recognition, users can speak simple words into a microphone to the Babyz. Babyz can listen to and understand the user's speech in real-time, and learn to speak back to the user in "baby-talk".

The Babyz immediately respond to the user's interactions with a variety of behaviors dependent on how the user interacts with them, how the Babyz feel at the time, and their individual personalities. A wide variety of body animations, emotional facial expressions, vocal sounds and baby-talk words have all been tightly integrated with a behavior-based artificial intelligence architecture. The end result are characters that communicate their feelings and thoughts in a natural, performance-like way, rather than through traditional user interface elements such as bar graphs, sliders or text messages. Additionally the characters have been specifically imbued with some long-term narrative intelligence, further encouraging users to experience their interactions as an ongoing "story".

In creating Babyz, we had two primary artistic and design goals. First was to create the strongest interactive illusion of life we possibly could on a personal computer. We feel we achieved this through a novel combination of a direct interaction interface, expressive real-time 3D animation, and artificial intelligence programming that models goals, motivations, personality and emotion. The final effect is a surprisingly compelling one, which should be of interest to artists and technologists alike. We believe Babyz are among the strongest, deepest implementations of virtual humans available to the general public to date.

Successfully accomplishing our first design goal was a prerequisite for our second, to allow users to form emotional relationships with their Virtual Babyz. To achieve this we chose characters that people recognize and understand how to interact with, presenting them in an unstructured, non-goal-oriented play context. The result is that users can easily suspend their disbelief and imagine the Babyz are truly alive, allowing them to feel empathetic, nurturing and rewarded when interacting with them, even over long periods of time. (In the few months since Babyz has been released, there are already over a hundred websites that users have created for their adopted Babyz; please see www.babyz.net for links.) We hope this would be of interest to scholars of new media theory and digital culture.

Additional team members for Babyz include Rob Fulop, John Rines, Mike Filippoff, Andrew Webster, Jan Sleeper, Neeraj Murarka, Bruce Sherrod, Dave Feldman and Darren Atherton.