Speaking for Scotland
Jenny Donelan
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 11 (November 2002)

Speaking for Scotland

In 1999, the year Scotland's Parliament met for the first time in three centuries, the Scottish Executive was created to run the country's day-to-day operations. The new government body—technically Scotland's "devolved" government—handles issues such as education, transport, law, and health (the UK Parliament in Westminster, London, still oversees defense and foreign affairs).

A Web site helped the newly formed Scottish Executive share information on domestic issues, but the government also sought some more cutting-edge way to communicate. Taking inspiration from the well-known virtual newscaster Ananova, the Scottish Executive decided to create a digital spokesperson who would provide both a friendly, accessible interface and a progressive image that would reflect its pro-technology attitude.

That real-time animated spokesperson, Seonaid (pronounced SHOW-na), premiered on Scotland's Junior Executive site (www.scotland.gov.uk/pages/news/junior). Says William Paul, the Scottish Executive's editor of Executive News Online, "It was decided to do a youth site, which wasn't there before, with the idea being that young people are notoriously apathetic about government. We could have had just a straightforward list of stories, but we decided to do something a wee bit more exciting and have a virtual character read the news rather than try and get the kids to read it."

Seonaid, the Scottish Executive's virtual spokesperson, is the first real-time digital character to appear on a government Web site. She was created by Digital Animations Group, who also developed virtual newsreader Ananova.

The Scottish Executive asked Glasgow-based Digital Animations Group (DAG), creator of Ananova, to develop a character who would appeal to the children of Scotland. "We built a personality profile," says Mike Antliff, CEO of Digital Animations Group, "that included a young but experienced individual who was well-educated, independent, and outgoing."

"She's female," says Paul, "because the research shows that for reasons best known to themselves, children tend to trust female broadcasters more than they do males. She's also got a bit of a Celtic look to her." Although Seonaid is an acronym for Scottish Executive Online News and Information Distributor, it is also a familiar Gaelic name, he notes.

Like Ananova (see "Animated Anchors," pg. 27, June 2000), Seonaid was developed with a mix of commercial and proprietary technologies. Once artists at DAG had created her personality profile and developed an idea of how she should look, they modeled Seonaid in NewTek's LightWave. Her animation libraries are derived from LightWave, and also from Softimage XSI. For example, "We created the dynamic animation libraries in XSI," says Antliff, "and took them through our own pipeline tool, DA:Hugo, into our core engine." DAG's own text-driven animation editor, DAT:T2, creates content for Seonaid.

Using DAT:T2, editors at the Scottish Executive type in scripts for interviews or press releases, and Seonaid voices the words in real time. Editors can tag the scripts with gestures, sound effects, and music, and also drop in logos and background imagery. These sequences can then be edited with video footage, if needed. Seonaid has, for example, interviewed several cabinet ministers.

Her modular design, says Antliff, enables easy incorporation of third-party programs, a capability exploited last summer when DAG used Rhetorical Systems' software to replace Seonaid's Ananova-style British accent with a West Coast Scottish one. The accent matches that of Seonaid's "hometown" in Scotland.

Positive reaction to Seonaid on the Junior Executive site encouraged the Scottish Executive to employ her on its main site (www.scotland.gov.uk/) as well, at about the same time that she received her Scottish accent. Wherever small icons of her face appear, users may access streaming video or audio versions of announcements and news stories.

Future possibilities for Seonaid include multilingual capability (she could also deliver the news in Gaelic, for example) and sign language. Says Antliff, "There are also more sophisticated systems for a future date that will give her the ability to hear and to see using a combination of voice recognition and vision systems. We will also be able to equip her with an intelligent conversation engine so people can log on and ask questions of her and she'll be able to respond."

Seonaid also works off-line occasionally, including a recent appearance at a museum exhibition. "There's no reason that in the future you couldn't access her on interactive TV, a public access kiosk system, or handheld mobile devices," says Antliff.

At present, according to Paul, Seonaid's greatest obstacle is bandwidth. He estimates that only 14 percent of Scottish users have broadband access, and "obviously she's better on broadband than over a phone link." He is encouraged, however, because more than half of Scottish schools now have broadband access. "All schools have some kind of Internet connection, and as more people come online and she becomes more easily accessible, I think we'll get more and more visitors to the site."

Along with her new voice, Seonaid recently received some wardrobe upgrades and a pair of glasses. She's more mobile, and can now deliver the news from in front of or behind her desk. Her CV, posted on the Junior Executive Web site, lists her interests (conservation, computer games), marital status (single, one long-term partner, Callum), and other statistics. "So as well as being a representative of the Scottish Executive, her whole identity is now Scottish, so that people can identify with her as a Scottish person—if you want to call her a person," says Paul.

"We are claiming, and no on has yet countered it, that she's the only real-time virtual character based on a government site. I suppose you could say she's a bit of a gimmick at the moment, but I think she'll become a required part of the site now that she's there." ..

Jenny Donelan is Managing Editor of Computer Graphics World.

Digital Animations Group www.digimania.com
NewTek www.newtek.com
Rhetorical Systems www.rhetoricalsystems.com
Softimage www.softimage.com