|We propose to develop a system in which people can engage in social behaviour by proxy. This behaviour might have a practical purpose, like buying a car, or asocial purpose, like making friends. The idea is that instead of engaging other people directly, the user of the system can create and instruct digital agents which serve as intermediaries. For instance, instead of human buyers and sellers talking by videophone or web chat, they instruct digital agents - or avatars -which negotiate on their behalf. The digital agents are modelled as human-like characters exhibiting personality and emotion. They are able to employ verbal and nonverbal channels for communication, including fine-tuned interaction of text, speech and body language. The agent's behaviour is determined automatically according to a personality model and the agent's role in a particular situation.
The NECA project will develop a new generation of mixed multi-user / multi-agent virtual spaces populated by affective conversational agents. The agents will be able to express them through synchronised emotional speech and non-verbal expression, generated from an abstract representation, which can be the output of an affective reasoner. This is the first time that such expressive capabilities are featured in Internet applications. The agents' usefulness will be evaluated in two concrete application scenarios. From a technical point of view, the emerging NECA platform will provide a confederation of dedicated components including an affective reasoner, co-ordinated generation, and emotional speech synthesis, thus providing a basis for the development of new Internet applications with emotional agents.
NECA promotes the concept of multi-modal communication with animated synthetic personalities. A particular focus in the project lies on communication between animated characters that exhibit credible personality traits and affective behaviour. The key challenge of the project is the fruitful combination of different research strands including situation-based generation of natural language and speech, semiotics of non-verbal expression in situated social communication, and the modelling of emotions and personality. The work plan comprises tasks for the development of dedicated components, such as components for emotive speech synthesis, generation of combined speech and nonverbal expressions, and components, which perform reasoning about a character's emotional disposition. The components form the building blocks of the generic NECA application platform. This platform will provide the basis upon which specific applications can be built. To demonstrate and assess the feasibility and usefulness of the NECA concept, different application scenarios will be developed. The first, the Flirt boat, is a new approach for bringing Internet users in contact with each other. The users choose among a set of available agents, instruct them about their personal preferences and send them as passengers on the Flirt boat where the agents will try to date as many other agents as possible and determine whether any like them enough to meet them again. The second demonstrator, the eShow Room, is a prototype of a new showroom for the products of online shops. The visitors of the showroom will receive product information by watching two or three agents discuss the product among value dimensions relevant for the product. In order to minimize risks due to the fast-moving sector of Internet-technologies, especially in relation to speech synthesis, the NECA consortium proposes a two-stage development cycle.
The core end products of NECA will be:
1) the NECA platform which allows for the development of applications with affective conversational characters;
2) the Flirt boat, a multi-user web-application in the social domain;
3) the eShow Room which demonstrates a novel approach to the presentation of products in eCommerce applications. The project will also make significant contributions to research on conversational synthetic characters, multi-modal communication, and affective speech synthesis.