Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 11 (November 2002)

What Are 'Veople' for?


In his novel God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes a scene in which a man about to dies says he is looking forward to asking God, “What are people for?” Like this character, who was never able to find an explanation to the question while he was “down here,” we’re unlikely to discover a definitive answer in our lifetimes. However, if we ask the same question about virtual people—now that they are proliferating in films, games, television, the Web, and beyond—the answers are much more straightforward.

At least that seemed evident at the recent Siggraph panel hosted by Computer Graphics World called "Digital Humans: What Roles Will They Play?" Indeed, the panelists—with diverse expertise in digital human technology and its applications—had little trouble explaining what virtual people are for. (To read an excerpt from the panel, see "Digital Humans Panel" under Opinion in the Web Exclusives section of our Web site at www.cgw.com.) Based on that discussion, and many that followed, here is a list of the top 10 uses for virtual people—or "veople," as some digital-human developers like to call them—now and in the foreseeable future:

10. Set Extras: Digital humans have been used in movies, television shows, video games, and Web applications to populate crowd scenes and serve as stand-ins and stunt doubles. Now we're also seeing digital extras in virtual reconstructions of historic settings and events, for museum exhibits and the like. Moreover, some of the characters not only look the part, but they are also being given enough intelligence to act as they might have at a particular place and time. One example of this can be found in the Virtual Pompeii simulation produced by Nadia Thalmann, director of MiraLab at the University of Geneva. As the technology filters down, it will be used more extensively in a host of related applications, even by consumers creating their own videos and animations.

9. Leading Actors: A few digital film and TV actors, such as Dr. Sid in the movie Final Fantasy and Andre Agassi in a groundbreaking TV commercial for Nike, have achieved near-lifelike performances. Also, recent computer graphics research efforts—including Disney's Digital Human Face Project and Industrial Light & Magic's attempts to build 3D characters with emotional intelligence—are advancing the state of the art even further. Alas, taking that last step toward creating digital actors that are totally indistinguishable from the real thing will take many years. In the meantime, we'll see many stylized, non-photorealistic leading digital actors boldly going places and doing things that real humans cannot.

8. Game Players: Digital humans are not only getting better looking, they're also getting smarter. Rather than following a few scripted actions or relying on user control, some interactive digital humans—though not as photoreal as their pre-rendered counterparts—have rudimentary intelligence that enables them to react spontaneously to interactions with other characters and changing situations. Some of the latest work in this area is from the MIT Media Lab, where researchers have created a character than has object constancy. That way, when objects disappear behind obstacles, the character knows where they are and where they are likely to reappear. Because computer gaming is the main application driving development in the computer graphics industry, look first for smarter digital humans in games, and then for the technology to be transferred to simulation and training programs.

7. Product Reps: A familiar technique for marketing all kinds of products, from breakfast cereals to SUVs, has been to pick real people or cartoon personalities to personify the products. A virtual person could allow a product manufacturer to go beyond this approach, by serving not only as a "brand-promotion device," but also as a sales representative, service agent, e-learning tutor, and information assistant. Being digital, the character could communicate messages and help customers consistently and tirelessly, carrying on many conversations simultaneously in many languages, even sign language. The voices we talk to today at automated call centers will tomorrow become virtual people serving us on picture phones, PDAs, and the Web.

6. Spokespersons: Just as digital humans could represent products, they can also be used to convey organizational or governmental information. In fact, the Scottish government has introduced Seonaid, a young digital woman who reads news bulletins and interviews government officials on the Web (see "Speaking for Scotland," pg. 40). Seonaid was designed for the Scottish government's youth site. But reactions to her there were so positive that she now appears on the main site as well. Seonaid's creator, Glasgow-based Digital Animations Group (DAG), has developed a number of other digital spokespersons, including the company's own Web host, TMmy—a "21-year-old virtual pop star" (shown below, right)—and Lauren, an online presenter for Glasgow's City Council.

5. News Commentators: Ananova, the first digital Web and TV news anchor, also from DAG, has been upgraded since her introduction in 2000 and has spawned ever more capable virtual newscasters, interviewers, and hosts. One recent example is DAG's Maddy, a virtual science "presenter" who appeared on a live BBC science program this summer, reading news and using a "conversation engine" to interact with guests and viewers and respond to unscripted questions in real time. Eventually, we will be able to speak to digital commentators and ask them in-depth questions about the news and have them explain what we'd like to know in the order we'd like to know it.

4. Role Players: The notion of having virtual therapists help real people solve problems has been tried but has never caught on. The reason is simply that these digital "sounding boards" are so visually and intellectually limited that few people would want to try to engage them in meaningful conversations. But it may soon be possible to design virtual humans that are realistic enough to act as confidants, coaches, family members, friends, even adversaries. And engaging them in role-playing dialogues could prove a useful, non-threatening way for people to work out personal and professional issues.

3. Biomedical Surrogates: Medical students have used virtual models to study the anatomy of individual or generic humans. In the future, it will be possible to create a precise digital duplicate of your body, so surgeons can test procedures on it before performing real operations, and physicians can use it to simulate reactions to medications before prescribing real ones.

2. Avatars: Digital doubles will also be able to serve you in cyberspace, to try out the look and feel of products, for example, or to act for you in online simulations, training programs, even performance art. And, for an application that's a little further out and perhaps a little morbid, your photorealistic 3D avatar could appear in a virtual memory album and be programmed to interact with people as you would, even after you have passed away.

1. Personal Assistants: Imagine having a personal helper that would obey your every command and answer your every question. It would understand spoken instructions, acquire knowledge, and remember what it has learned. It could connect to other virtual agents and make appointments for you, put you directly in touch with almost anyone you wish at any time, and use the Internet as a vast database to conduct research and return results instantaneously. Such digital assistants will be so useful that future generations will wonder how we ever got along without them.

The above uses of digital humans, especially the more futuristic among them, will not appear overnight. They will require significant developments in computer graphics, real-time animation, and, more important, speech recognition and AI programming—technologies that are lagging far behind the state of the art in graphics. But recent advances promise to eventually make applications like these a reality. Moreover, this list of potential uses for virtual humans is just a starting point, and one that we'd like you to help us expand. So please go to our Web site (www..cgw.com), select Web Exclusives, and look under Surveys for "What Are Virtual People for?" And let us know what purposes you think virtual humans could best serve.

Digital human developer Digital Animations Group features TMmy, a virtual character with a detailed personality profile, as its Web host.




In creating such a list, it's clear that the goal of developing more realistic and intelligent digital humans is a worthy one, for many practical reasons. Moreover, as we envision roles for these new beings—and create them in our own image—they may also serve an intellectual purpose of helping us learn more about ourselves. Of course, even if we build virtual people with access to all knowledge, they probably still will not be able to provide a meaningful explanation of what real people are for. ..
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