Steve DiPaola moderates the panel Characters on the Internet: The Next Generation.
























Jennifer James is part of the Digital Pavillions. Find out more about In-Person Service Characters.




John Funge is teaching the course, Hardcore AI for Computer Games and Animation.






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What a Character!


That ability to react to situations and interact with people well enough to seem human-like can be a powerful audience draw. People who visit the HP Palmtop site stay an average of nine minutes, according to Steve DiPaola, creative director at Merlin's birthplace, Darwin Digital. "Nine minutes is very long," he explains. "It's almost game-site retention. And this is strictly an advertising site." Catching all the separate parts of Merlin's act only takes six minutes, he says, implying that visitors are so intrigued, they are viewing some of it two or three times.

DiPaola believes people hang out with Merlin longer because interacting with characters is a much more natural and enjoyable way to obtain information than the typical experience computers now provide. For instance, searching online for computer tech support information might seem less like enduring root canal surgery if you were interacting with a character, not just wading through words.

With that idea in mind, DiPaola envisions a world in which every website has its own resident intelligent character. "You will create, rather than audition, your spokesperson," he explains.

Someday, he says, you will even have a personal character of your own, a cyberassistant whom you will send out to other websites armed with instructions about what's interesting enough to report back on. In the ultimate manifestation, your agent might negotiate with a company's own spokesperson to get good deals on things you want to buy.

DiPaola's vision raises some disturbing questions. Who will be responsible if our agents make choices on our behalf that we disagree with? Once every company and every person has a smiley-faced, intelligent-sounding agent, how will we ever figure out who is telling the truth and who is bluffing or lying? In face-to-face conversation, people who are stumped by a question or caught in a lie usually give off clear emotional cues, like looking down or stammering. Will an online car salesman who doesn't do these things be more or less believable than his human counterpart?

Rather than wait for the pundits and lawyers to work out the ethics first, we now have the chance to decide for ourselves. Jennifer James, celebrity auto spokesperson, is an "in-person service character" that combines Extempo's agent technology with Animatek's animation engines. Billed as a former NASCAR driver who knows cars, she is a 3D personage displayed on a 2D screen who understands spoken speech. Using her dialog, gestures, and facial expressions, she will attempt to establish a relationship with you. While you two are "relating," she will also try to match you to a new car, alternately asking you questions about your lifestyle and pitching cars she thinks you might like.

The move to intelligent characters has not escaped the attention of game designers. "People want to have more intelligent characters," says software engineer John Funge of Intel. "It makes games more interesting."

Funge is interested in using artificial intelligence concepts to make characters think for themselves to solve problems the game designer never anticipated. He says one of the biggest challenges is teaching characters common sense. "If you pick up an object," he explained, "one of the effects of this action is that you're holding the object after you pick it up. But its color doesn't change. It doesn't turn into a horse. Nothing ridiculous happens." The challenge is "how to tell it about what doesn't change, in a very short way."

One of the untapped potentials he sees is to create intelligent cooperative characters, buddy assistants who help you win. "They don't just have to be opponents," Funge said, "they could be on your side in a more intelligent way."

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