March 31 - British scientists have created what they say is the world's most realistic human avatar. Equipped with advanced language function, 'Zoe' has been designed as a tool for use in the business and education sectors but could one day also live on your smart phone. Jim Drury went to meet her.
"I'm Zoe, I'm here to help." Her creators believe Zoe could one day, be a great deal of help, as an assistant to business executives, a teacher's aide or in the entertainment industry. They say Zoe is the world's most advanced and realistic human avatar. She can display a range of emotions, her voice simulating any feeling her programmer wants. UPSOT: ZOE AVATAR SAYING "It's freezing cold. I can't wait till it's Spring" IN THREE DIFFERENT WAYS Zoe is the brainchild of engineers from Toshiba Research and the University of Cambridge. She's modelled on TV actress Zoe Lister, who spent ten days being recorded speaking in various emotional states. UPSOT: ACTRESS ZOE LISTER SAYING "Well, I haven't eaten anything in three days" IN THREE DIFFERENT WAYS Toshiba engineer Vincent Wan and colleagues combined face-modelling and mathematical algorithms to work with Lister's recordings. SOUNDBITE (English) VINCENT WAN, RESEARCH ENGINEER AT TOSHIBA RESEARCH EUROPE, SAYING: "We set up cameras, and microphones and asked her to read about 7,000 sentences in various different emotions....then we had to feed all that into a computer and then it would model the emotions, which includes the voice and the face and as a result now when we type some text in we can control not just what she says but also which emotion she says them in." By breaking down various phrases phonetically, the engineers have given Zoe the ability to say even the most complicated of words. UPSOT: ZOE AVATAR SAYING: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." And by adjusting six primary settings to different levels, and altering the pitch, speed and depth of her voice, Wan says Zoe can reproduce the subtleties of such emotions as fear and anger. UPSOT: ZOE AVATAR SAYING WITH A MIXTURE OF FEAR AND ANGER: "It's freezing cold. I can't wait till it's Spring." Zoe requires minimal computing power - just tens of megabytes, so could be incorporated into tablets and smartphones. Project leader, Toshiba's Bjorn Stenger, thinks it could have a wide range of functions. SOUNDBITE (English) BJORN STENGER, HEAD OF COMPUTER VISION GROUP AT TOSHIBA RESEARCH, SAYING: "You could send messages, you know Zoe could read out your messages to your friends in an expressive or happy or sad way. It could be a tutor, for example also helping kids who are hearing impaired or have autism, so that they could learn to read facial expressions." Despite no specific product plans, the team hope, before long, to create an avatar that users personalise with their own videos. Zoe's creators believe they may have cracked the so-called Uncanny Valley, the point at which human replicas come close to being realistic but still cause discomfort among people. And to that claim, Zoe has her own opinion. UPSOT: ZOE AVATAR SAYING: "Am I a real person or am I just a computer model? I think I'm a bit of both."