Designing virtual humans for web-based learning processes

The Problem Solved

Current research into the mechanisms of how viewers form impressions on the basis of nonverbal cues has shown that the reason for the highly aversive emotional reaction regularly triggered by humanoid avatars is the discrepancy between a natural-looking, appealingly fashioned outward appearance and a movement behaviour that is perceived as ‘unnatural’. Evidently, this difficulty is almost impossible to overcome as long as we do not know what the specific features are that make human movement behaviour look ‘natural’. There is, therefore, only one way to eliminate the mismatch between the nonverbal behaviour familiar from human communication and the performance exhibited by avatars: the movements of the avatars must be designed on the basis of a method capable of describing accurately the full complexity of the movement displayed in human interaction and of identifying the characteristic features governing our visual impressions.

With the Bernese System for Coding Nonverbal Interaction, developed in the 1980s, it became possible for the first time to transcribe the nonverbal behaviour patterns displayed in human interaction into a written protocol which, as far as accuracy and richness in detail are concerned, is in no way inferior to the alphabetic notation of speech. The importance of this methodological innovation is amplified by findings which suggest that specific nonverbal features of behaviour exert a decisive influence on the formation of attitudes and opinions about other people, similar to a key stimulus which elicits a fixed action pattern. These findings shed new light upon the role nonverbal behaviour assumes in social relationships, an aspect germane also to the process of information transmission from tutor to student. One key consideration in this regard concerns the question of how teachers or tutors are perceived by students and in which ways such perceptions influence readiness to learn. By identifying those nonverbal features governing the formation of visual impressions, it becomes essentially possible to create virtual characters capable of emulating the nonverbal behaviour of instructors perceived as competent and sympathetic – and thus, to overcome the highly aversive 'Uncanny Valley' response that for so long has kept humanoid avatars out of business.


This project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and by the European Social Fund of the European Union.

Geldgeber Logos