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The automat understands me

Operating machines and computers often requires a great deal of patience. A virtual human on the display that talks to and understands the user could make communications between human and machine much easier in the future.

Ticket machines that do not issue a ticket, automated money tellers that happen to be out of order, mashines that refuses to accept check cards – interaction between human and machine often turns out to be difficult. At least until now. Virtual humans that respond to the customer's needs might soon replace these annoying machines: travelers may soon be greeted by this new generation of robots on screen, when they explain, in everyday language, what ticket they need – just as if a railway official was dealing with them. The virtual ticket seller on the other side of the screen would also listen patiently to questions and provide answers. Researchers from various institutions are currently developing this kind of virtual being – the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD and Fraunhofer Institute for Media Communication IMK are among those involved. "The idea behind the virtual character is to design the human-computer interface as naturally as possible", explains Christian Knöpfle, head of Virtual Reality at the IGD. The requirements placed on virtual humans are enormous: they need to interact socially, communicate verbally and non-verbally – in other words via speech, gestures and facial expressions, have a human, pleasant appearance and be credible in dialogue with the user. Unlike virtual actors used in film productions, the virtual human has to respond in real time – immediately, without prompting from a real human hand. To achieve this, researchers are developing various modules to generate dialog, understand speech and for graphics output, interfacing these through a web-based approach. Potential applications for virtual humans are enormous: one area involves tutor support for students on e-learning courses, with the virtual human answering questions and giving help with problems – making the learning process on and with the computer a more enjoyable experience. Human-like characters are also ideal for dealing with issues that involve training social skills: for example a railway official can practice dealing with difficult customers with the help of the virtual human. "The virtual human could play an awkward traveler to which the real-life ticket seller has to react", explains Knöpfle. "And the ticket seller can also study the various responses from two virtual humans – say ticket seller and customer – and learn from their behavior".

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