Researchers Developing a Virtual Butler

ByDavid Louie

Aug. 3, 2001 -- The telephone made it possible for people to order flowers and pizza, to ask directions, and to make reservations simply by speaking. To do the same thing over a computer requires a keyboard and text.

But soon, the computer could provide you with a personal assistant that takes orders by voice and even anticipates your needs.

Engineers say they are about three years from providing two-way voice communication between computers and people similar to the all-knowing computer named "Hal" in the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At the Sprint Advanced Technology Laboratory in Burlingame, Calif., at the fringe of Silicon Valley is a room with a large, wall-mounted video screen and a camera. When you walk in, a voice welcomes you. It's the voice of Chase Walker, an animated character on the screen.

"Good to see you again."

Again?

Chase scans your image as you appear on camera, recognizing you. Your image is in his database. But he knows more about you — much more.

Ask and Chase Delivers

In this lab, Chase is known as an "intelligent agent." But Chase himself prefers calling himself a "virtual butler." He's at your service. He will keep your appointment calendar, remind you of birthdays and other important dates, and even read your e-mail. All you have to do is ask.

When he reminds you it's time to leave for the airport to catch a flight to Tokyo, Chase will check on traffic conditions to estimate how long the drive will take. He will ask if you would like to call the airline and check for delays. He will even find out the forecast for Tokyo. He gleans all of this information from the Internet.

Sprint's long-term goal is to enable you and Chase to communicate seamlessly, whether you're using a desktop computer, a PDA or a mobile telephone. That's possible because Chase resides on a network server, making him accessible wherever you are. The development team predicts consumers will be relying on Chase, or characters like him, to manage their daily lives within three to five years.

Sprint is working with Headpedal, a San Francisco based software company that creates interactive, animated characters. Research indicates people feel more comfortable communicating with a human-like character, rather than with an impersonal machine.

"It's really about enabling people to feel comfortable in front of a computer so you can go up to Chase the way you would a teller at a bank or a friend you see on the street," says Scott Prevost, president of Headpedal.

Computer Nanny?

And just like that bank teller or friend, Chase recognizes you by sight, rather than by voice. That helps to give a human quality to the character. Giving a robot human qualities is the concept of the recent movie, A.I. At some point, you may even forget — or choose to forget — that you're dealing with a creation of technology wizards.

As Chase gets to know you, he remembers your likes and preferences.

"I know you've purchased books on Kennedy in the past," Chase points out. "Should I let you know when there's a new book out?"

Frank DeNap, who heads up this project for Sprint, suggests that Chase could even keep an eye on the kids. If they spend too much time watching cartoons on TV, Chase might recommend they take a break and work on finishing their homework.

Sprint executives aren't saying how much the company is investing to develop Chase. And if you ask Chase, he's not telling either.

He's knows who's boss.

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