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Monday, 6 November, 2000, 12:57 GMT
Meet your virtual double
Avatars BT
Virtual people sit down for a real meeting
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

A computerised version of you could soon be sitting in cyberspace, attending meetings and conferences on your behalf.

BT is developing a system that adds digital doubles, or avatars, to online and telephone conferences to restore human interaction to remote meetings and make them more productive.

Such computer surrogates are becoming more common, and some are already in use reading the news or dispensing advice to consumers navigating through websites.

BT will launch its avatar service next summer.

Cyberspace clones

Researchers at BT's research labs at Martlesham in Suffolk, UK, are developing software that adds animated avatars to its existing teleconferencing system.

Andrea Catherwood PA
Channel 5 newsreader Andrea Catherwood
Already, anyone setting up a telephone conference with BT can use an associated virtual meeting room populated with icons representing the people taking part.

The real people participating in the conference can see what is happening in their virtual meeting room via the BT Conferencing website.

The icons let the participants know who is chairing the meeting and who is currently speaking.

Gesture politics

BT wants to replace the icons with something more realistic to make the meetings resemble more familiar face-to-face encounters.

BT favours avatars because it is easier to send a small command to make an avatar perform a gesture than it is to stream the video images of a real person performing the same movement.

Good quality video images require fast network connections and many of the people joining teleconferences dial in from home over slow lines.

The BT researchers are equipping the avatars with a range of behaviours that make them appear vaguely human.

Pay attention

When the avatars first appear, they walk into the virtual room and take a seat around the conference table. New entrants to a conference are welcomed with a wave, and anyone wanting to speak tells their avatar to put up their hand to get the attention of the chairman.

Michael Jewell, one of the developers of the conferencing avatars, said BT had been trialling the system among its own staff for a couple of months. "It gives people a great sense that they are in a meeting," he said "They become much more involved because they can identify with the people in that meeting."

The avatars will also make it harder to avoid boring meetings. The avatar of anyone who looks at other windows on their PC while a meeting is going on will appear to pick up a sheaf of papers and read them.

Avatars everywhere

Now the BT researchers are working on making the avatars more lifelike by adding more mannerisms and ways for people to tailor the appearance of their avatar.

The company is also planning to let people use the avatars they created of themselves in the Talkzone at the Millennium Dome in London. Channel 5 newsreader Andrea Catherwood was one of the more well-known avatars created using by this method.

BT is not the only company using avatars. Ananova the avatar reads the news on the website with the same name, and ill-fated fashion website boo.com used an avatar called Miss Boo to help customers navigate its website.

Other companies such as Extempo are developing more sophisticated avatars that can hold conversations with surfers. Companies such as Procter and Gamble are already using its technology to give advice to customers.

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