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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 16:56 GMT
Virtual girlfriend
Spencer Kelly
By Spencer Kelly
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Spencer Kelly
For those who are too busy to find a partner, a Hong Kong company has found a solution - a virtual girlfriend on your 3G phone.

V-Girl is an interactive mobile phone game, made possible by the high-speed data rates offered by 3G phone networks.

Eberhard Schöneburg, CEO of the company behind the game, Artificial Life, says: "You can chat with the girl in real time and then she will respond with voice.

"We're using a technology called text-to-speech and also in the written form. So you can listen to her but you can also read what she says."

The aim of the game is to please your mobile girlfriend as much as you can by buying her virtual presents, remembering her birthday... all the usual stuff.

She is in the same vein as the Tamagotchi toys that drove us mad in the mid 1990s.

This time, though, the processing is not done in the device.

Real-time interaction

The virtual girlfriend's brain is at A-Life's headquarters in Hong Kong, where natural language processing is used to understand your text inputs and formulate suitable responses.

Virtual girlfriend, Vivan
Because the 3G phone network is so fast, the video and audio can be streamed back to the mobile in real time
It is here that the programmers work on the automated lip-syncing, facial expressions, the girl's virtual world and her clothing line.

Because the 3G phone network is so fast, the video and audio can be streamed back to the mobile in real time.

Over time, the girlfriend appears to learn things about you from your inputs, but that learning process has to be carefully controlled.

Ernest Axelbank, of Artificial Life, says: "A knowledge engineer has to look at the log files and choose what to add to the knowledge base of the virtual girlfriend, otherwise there's a very big problem that can arise.

If a virtual girlfriend were to pick up anything a user says and add that to her own knowledge base it could be disastrous.

She might pick up information that's completely wrong, she might pick up bad habits, she might start using foul language... any number of things can actually come out of that."

While true love blossoms between men and their handsets, A-Life is already working on other smartbots, including a virtual newsreader, not unlike Ananova.

Eberhard Schöneburg says: "There will be follow-up products to the virtual girlfriend.

"We'll have a virtual boyfriend and, believe it or not, a virtual mother-in-law, which will be a very funny product.

"Everybody hates it so that's a good start!"

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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