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November 28, 2003

Virtual humansÂ’ open up new vista

From: Business Weekly, UK - Nov 28, 2003

The University of East Anglia and Norwich-based animation company Televirtual have proved a winning combination for the second time, by coming top in the Royal Television Society’s national technical awards for 2003.

The prize was awarded to the Vista consortium, of which both UEA and Televirtual are members, for work on an electronic programme guide for multi-channel TV services, built around an animated ‘virtual human’ who chats to viewers about what they want to see on the box.

The Vista project has been working to develop a talking TV that helps elderly or visually impaired people choose which programme they want to watch.

A friendly “virtual human” chats with viewers about what’s on and when, and once the viewer has made a choice, automatically switches the set to the right channel.

Mark Wells, Televirtual’s research director said: “The talking programme guide will be a great help to those people, often the elderly or those with sight problems, who find ordinary guides and menu systems confusing or difficult to read.

“It’s been great working with UEA on this – as with the previous projects, we both bring different skills to the table and working together we achieve more than we ever could alone.”

Dr Stephen Cox, of UEA’s School of Computing Sciences said: “In addition to providing consultancy on the technology that went into VISTA, UEA has done experiments with volunteers to find out how they would speak to a system that was as advanced as HAL in the film ‘2001’.

“The results of these experiments have been used in the design of an improved system, and we hope to carry on this research in a follow-up project.”

The speaking virtual human can claim a Norfolk pedigree, as the body and face were developed by Televirtual and the synthetic voice by Nuance Communications, a Silicon Valley company with a lab in Norwich.

The project, which was backed by the DTI, spent 18 months linking up electronic programmes guides, supplied by Sky, to state of the art speech recognition and synthetic voice software, as well as animated virtual human technology.

In the Vista demonstration system, a viewer can talk to a computer linked to a TV. The computer recognises the viewer’s questions, and uses them to search the programme guide. Answers are fed back to the speech software and spoken replies to the viewer’s questions are synchronised to the lip movements of a realistic virtual human or ‘avatar’.

The system was developed following extensive initial research on the television viewing habits, behaviours and needs of visually impaired and elderly viewers.

UEA and Televirtual won the same Royal Television Society award in 1998 as members of a project which used virtual humans to perform animated sign language for deaf people.

© 2003 Q Communications Ltd.