Project to develop virtual people
3 April 2007
A new research project involving the Universities of
Illinois and Central Florida aims to create computer-generated virtual
persons that interact with humans in a life-like manner. The methodology may
prove valuable for developing more user-friendly archiving and retrieval of
information, and for computer games, among other uses.
Imagine having a
discussion with Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein on the nature of the
universe, where their 3-D, life-sized representations looked you in the eye,
examined your body language, considered voice nuances and phraseology of
your questions, then answered you in a way that is so real you would swear
the images were alive.
The new research project between the University of Illinois at Chicago and
the University of Central Florida in Orlando may soon make such imaginary
conversations a reality.
Technology from computer games, animation and artificial intelligence
provide the elements to make this happen. The National Science Foundation
has awarded a half-million dollar, three-year grant to UIC and UCF
researchers to bring those elements together and create the methodology for
making such virtual figures commonplace.
UIC will focus on the computer graphics and interaction while UCF will
concentrate on artificial intelligence and natural language processing
"The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced
graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical
archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional
technologies such as text, audio and video footage," said Jason Leigh,
associate professor of computer science and director of UIC's Electronic
Visualization Laboratory. Leigh is UIC's lead principal investigator.
EVL will build a state-of-the-art motion-capture studio to digitalize the
image and movement of real people who will go on to live a virtual eternity
in virtual reality. Knowledge will be archived into databases. Voices will
be analyzed to create synthesized but natural-sounding "virtual" voices.
Mannerisms will be studied and used in creating the 3-D virtual forms, known
technically as avatars.
Leigh said his team hopes to create virtual people who respond with a high
degree of recognition to different voices and the various ways questions are
"Imagine a computer smart enough to have the avatar respond 'Do you
understand what I'm saying?' in the natural way humans communicate with each
other," said Leigh. "We're trying to tip towards being as naturalistic as
The project's test subject will be a senior NSF program manager known for
his wealth of institutional knowledge. A UIC graduate student will shadow
this official for several months making video and voice recordings. His
presence will be digitally reconstructed and interviews used to glean his
institutional insights will be stored in the information database. It will
allow NSF personnel to consult his virtual counterpart whenever they want to
tap his institutional wisdom.
Leigh sees a commercial market for preserving virtual people whose critical
or unique knowledge is vital to operations of corporations and other
Faster, more powerful computers in the future will likely enhance the
realism of these interactive avatars. How they will be used is limited only
by one's imagination.
"What's interesting to us is how this works in cycles," said Leigh.
"Advanced graphics/simulation research resulted in today's gaming
technology. A lot of the virtual reality techniques we now take for granted
in game systems like Nintendo Wii or immersive environments like Second Life
came out of labs like EVL. Now next-generation gaming technology is
stimulating new applications for advanced graphics/simulation research that
can benefit gaming as well as other fields."