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Thursday, December 17, 2009

New Abertay Avatar research to 'bridge real and virtual world interactivity'

blue being with pointy ears standing in riverThis week sees the general release of James Cameron’s latest blockbuster ‘Avatar’ hailed by critics and special effects enthusiasts as groundbreaking. However, multi award-winning director Cameron first had the vision for the ‘3D space opera’ several years ago but had to wait for technology to catch up.

With two sequels already planned, Cameron and his team will now be looking for ways to make the next films an even bigger and better experience for the movie-goer… could the next inspiration come from Dundee’s own Abertay University?

Imagine a world where your PC or games console recognises what mood you are in and reacts accordingly, simply by looking at your face. Where you can experience genuine and sophisticated interaction with an on screen character or scenario without talking, typing or flaying your arms about with a games control attached to them.

A new research post at the University of Abertay Dundee plans to create just that. The new Postgraduate Studentship ‘Bridging Real and Virtual World Interactivity’ comes from the research discipline of Affective Computing.

So far, similar research work at Abertay has been concerned with the authenticity of avatars, chiefly their ability to display authentic emotions to the player. This new research takes things a step further and seeks to improve the authenticity and sophistication of non-verbal interaction, ultimately improving the participant experience.

The research aims to reduce the gap between human-human and human-machine intelligence in interaction involving non-verbal communication. Specifically ways of making machines recognise human expressions such as a genuine smile, a frown or a look of panic.

Dr Leslie Ball, who specialises in Artificial Intelligence, heads up the research. Dr Ball said: “In essence, if we imagine this technique being used successfully in massive multi-player internet games such as World of Warcraft, players from around the world could be communicating with each other, as avatars, from their living rooms on different sides of the world, using only facial expressions.

“Whilst the reality of this example being put into practice is quite a while away it is completely feasible.”

Dr Ball said: “Emotion is fundamental to most if not all human experiences, it affects decision making, perception and learning and essentially we are looking at improving the emotional intelligence of machines, the ability of computers to reason, relate and ‘be clever’.

“While the primary role for this research function lies in the field of entertainment the possibilities for its use in the longer term are immense. We could be looking at all manners of human computer interaction such as self-service checkouts, cashpoint machines and automated airport check-in points.”

The most popular games for all ages, rely heavily on interaction for optimum experience. The most famous example of this probably being the Nintendo Wii.

The research team at Abertay includes psychologists and computer animators and brings together the School of Computing and Engineering Systems, the School of Social and Health Sciences and the Institute for Art, Media and Computer Games.

Dr Ball said: “This project is a perfect example of the multi-disciplinary approach to research and learning that Abertay strives for and that is made possible in part, by the small size of the University.”

To facilitate this multi-disciplinary approach, the new post holder will be based in the innovative White Space inter-disciplinary environment at the University.

Speaking of the potential new team member Dr Ball said: “The person we are looking for for this Studentship must be both technical and artistic, two qualities that do not necessarily go hand in hand. There will be a lot of data collection and analysis, and programming as well as design and animation work.”

“This really is a fantastic opportunity for the right person and we are all very excited to get the research going and continue with the advancements in Affective Computing that we have already made here at Abertay.”

The Studentship is part of the Abertay 15th Anniversary Scholarship Fund and is also supported by the Gordon Grieg Trust Fund.