Doron Friedman of the Advanced Virtuality Lab (AVL), Israel, is leading a team of scientists developing the next generation of human-computer interfaces. The aim is to build interfaces for virtual worlds allowing users to control avatars mentally.
The project called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment (VERE) is funded by the European Union. The team includes AVL researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel: Doron Friedman, Ori Cohen and Dan Drai, who have teamed up with Rafael Malach from the Weizman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.
The Jerusalem Post reports the team recently used a brain scanner to control a computer application interactively in real time. Friedman commented on the potential applications of the recent achievement:
“You could control an avatar just by thinking about it and activating the correct areas in the brain."
Friedman noted the growing interest, in recent times, in developing a new generation of brain-computer interfaces and the recent breakthroughs which make the goal more than just a dream:
"Recently, with advances in processing power, signal analysis, and neuro-scientific understanding of the brain, there is growing interest in Brain Computer Interface, and a few success stories. Current BCI research is focusing on developing a new communication alternative for patients with severe neuromuscular disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, brain stem stroke, and spinal cord injury."
The project VERE, is one of a number of other projects the AVL team is focusing on. According to The Jerusalem Post, the team is also interested in the closely related problem of telepresence in modern communications technology. Friedman explains the concept of teleprescence:
“Although we have phones, emails and video conferences – we still prefer a real meeting. The question is why? What is missing in mediated communication, and how can we develop technologies that will feel like a real meeting?"
The Israeli team is convinced it already has a viable approach to the challenge of telepresence in modern communication in the BEAMING project. The project BEAMING (Being in Augmented Multi-modal Naturally-networked Gatherings) aims to develop new approaches to producing lifelike interactions using "mediated technologies such as surround video conference, virtual and augmented reality, virtual sense of touch (haptics) and spatialized audio and robotics."
Friedman explained that the AVL team is involved in a special package in the international collaborative BEAMING project. He explained that AVL team, under the BEAMING project, is working on a package it has ambitiously named "Better than Being There." Friedman extolled the virtues of the "BEAMING proxies" it is developing:
"...with BEAMING you can be in several places at once...With BEAMING proxies, the virtual character will not only look like you, but behave in the same way that you would, limited only by today’s artificial intelligence capabilities.”
A BEAMING proxy comes with a special difference from ordinary computer game avatars. A BEAMING proxy looks like the person it represents and interacts in virtual environment like the person would in a real-world environment.
A version of the BEAMING proxy the AVL team developed was recently used in SecondLife, an online virtual world. Another online study on religion used BEAMING proxies as virtual robots. The Jerusalem Post reports:
"The bot [virtual robot] wandered around in the virtual environment of SecondLife and collected data to evaluate social and ethical implications of the bot and the other 'real' players."
Recent demonstrations of how BEAMING proxies work give us glimpses of how we may be living and socializing in the not-too-distant future:
Dr. Beatrice Hasler was scheduled to give a lecture in SecondLife, but because she had to be elsewhere at the time of the lecture, her lecture was pre-recorded and her avatar programmed to answer questions and also reproduce her characteristic mannerisms and body language. In a situation in which the avatar is uncertain how to answer a question, it may call Hasler on the phone and ask for help.
Friedman says he is already looking beyond implementation of virtual robots as personal avatars ("proxies") in virtual environments. He is already thinking of the possibility of developing proxies that can interact outside virtual spaces, that is, we could soon be having avatars that can attend real-life events.
Friedman cautions, however, that in spite of the developments so far, the research is still in early stages. He explains that there is a significant gap between academic research and its industrial application. Friedman explains:
“The EU body instructed us to focus on technologies that will have a great impact in 20 years. A good academic research is ahead of today’s technologies and/or focuses on things that are not commercial but are important to our future society.”