Sharp gets chatty

Sharp Corp. of Osaka, Japan, last month demonstrated a new type of interface which will interact with users. A user speaks into a PC equipped with a video camera through a microphone, and asks it a question such as how the weather is in another part of the world. A computer-generated character will begin to recognize and respond to the user’s voice and gestures by nodding, and will then search for the information on the Internet. The timing of the nodding and response makes it appear as if a conversation is taking place in real-time. This is a vital part of what the company calls its multimodal agent interface. Sharp demonstrated the technology with “Maico,” a three-dimensional, 26-year-old female. The company has also created “Gabriel,” a male version which does not respond to voice commands but can respond to the sound of voices. This enables people to speak any language to him, and get a response. Maico can currently find weather information and television listings, and can answer questions such as “What is your favourite food?” The company said the technology will be available in commercial systems which use this type of interface in four to five years.

Speaking of chatty computers…

The Science Museum in London last month hosted the international Loebner Prize competition, to find the computer with the best conversational skills. The annual prize is based on the Turing Test, or an imitation game developed by Alan Turing, a mathematician and computer scientist. Turing apparently proposed the test in a magazine article in 1950. Turing asked if a machine could think, and in response to his own question noted that machines could be said to be intelligent is their responses could not be differentiated from those of a human. So, in 1990, Hugh Loebner, a New York philanthropist, created the competition. At press time, the winner of the 2001 award had not yet been announced.

Industrial computers

Designed specifically for use in a forklift, truck or other type of industrial vehicle, the new VX4 Rugged Vehicle-Mounted Computer was launched last month by Norcross, Ga.-based LXE Inc, a subsidiary of EMS Technologies Inc. The VX4 features a Windows-based OS (which supports 98 and 2000 versions), an Intel Pentium 266MHz MMX processor, a 10.4″ colour SVGA display with a touch-screen interface, and a 10GB hard drive, according to a press release issued by the company. The company also notes in the release that interface options include two RS-232 serial ports, one USB port, PS/2 keyboard port, audio/microphone port, and an internal speaker/beeper.

Travellers prepare

With the recent terrorist attacks in the U.S. having a severe impact on the travel industry, Sabre Holdings Corp. recently announced that it has launched a new tool for North American users of the Sabre Virtually There Web site ( Travellers now have the option to receive an automated voice alert if their flight has been delayed, cancelled or if there is a gate/terminal change within 24 hours of the flight’s scheduled departure time. As well, the company announced that, prior to departure, users are also able to receive a reminder with gate information. Users must register for Flight Notification on the Trip Review page through the Web site to use this service. The company noted in a press release that while these advance warnings have been available for several months via e-mail or text messaging, the addition of voice notification offered through a speech-recognition platform is entirely new.

Banner-ad battle forges on in Germany

Web surfers annoyed with pop-up banner ads have increasingly been implementing software to filter out ads. One German Internet company, mediaBEAM GmbH, which finances its unified messaging services through advertising, had just about enough of the filters, so it developed an antidote – software called AdKey, which blocks the blockers – and denies access to its site users who have implemented a filter. According to a story from the IDG News Service, Berlin bureau, a 25-year-old German man has cracked AdKey, just days after its original launch. In an interview, the man noted that he is not a hacker, is familiar with HTML, and considered the cracking task to be a “sportsmanlike challenge.” In an e-mail to journalists, he included instructions on how to circumvent the AdKey algorithm, using a filter form AG. In response, mediaBEAM has announced that it has prepared another version of AdKey. The anonymous cracker has indicated that he is already on the case, and will not give up until he has gotten through this next version as well.