Coming soon, empathetic virtual humans

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Melbourne, Dec 5 : A completely different 'breed' of virtual humans is being developed by French researchers which will be capable of reading and adapting to our emotions.

Professor Catherine Pelachaud, director of research from the Paris Institute of Technology and colleagues are developing virtual humans, called Embodied Conversational Agents (ECAs) that can act autonomously in a virtual environment.

With virtual humans becoming a reality, humans would be able to develop long-term relationships with such agents which would not only be able to speak, but will also communicate via facial expressions, head movements, hand gestures and gaze.

After creating the first autonomous agents in 1994, the researchers are now aiming to make the agents more expressive and more able to read and adapt to the emotions of users. elachaud said that people expect a lot from virtual humans and often lose interest quickly in them because they don't appear to be very 'human'. But now she wants to develop agents that maintain the interest of users for a long time. In one project, called Semaine, the researchers are developing four agents with different personalities.

"We've been working on creating distinctive agents," ABC Online quoted her as saying.

In Semaine, researchers are testing how real humans respond when confronted by agents who are variously aggressive, gloomy, energetically positive or pragmatic - focused on solving problems.

With this, Pelachaud said, scientists are getting basic data for developing agents that could be useful in teaching and medical programs, and for virtual assistants in information kiosks or virtual characters in entertainment.

As part of a related study, the researchers are developing an agent that could empathise with real humans.

For example, a virtual agent on a screen can be taught to detect, via webcam, the emotion of a person looking at the screen. The agent can then react appropriately.

Pelachaud said that this could be useful in applications where a person is seeking information from the agent.

But, if the agent gets it wrong and detects the person becoming upset, it could show empathy through non-verbal signs, which in turn could help reduce the frustration the person feels.

"Having an agent that shows empathy can enhance the relationship between a user an agent. The user may still not get the information, but at least they won't feel so negative from the interaction," she said.

The study was presented at a meeting of the ARC Network in Human Communication Science in Sydney.

ANI

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