‘Avatar’ Research to ‘Bridge Real and Virtual World’

This 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. Applicants should contact Dawn Keen on d.keen@abertay.ac.uk

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