Designing virtual humans for web-based learning processes
The Problem Posed
Since the early days of computer animation, the notion of creating "virtual humans" who act like real humans has been one of the great visions in information and communications technology. It has been argued repeatedly that in all the fields into which computers have diffused, virtual characters (avatars) should be able to serve the function which nonverbal communication assumes in real life - an aspect of behaviour which, as is understood today, exerts a decisive influence on the course and outcome of human communication and interaction. When applied to vocational training, the use of avatars offers the unique advantage that work routines and teaching processes can be presented in their idealized form, adjusted to the trainees’ individual needs. For unlike real teachers or pre-recorded videos, virtual tutors may be directed and managed by the learner in an almost unlimited number of ways. Thus, learners can benefit from what in cognitive science is called the "unpaced" mode of information processing, a particularly favourable way of acquiring knowledge and skills.
When embedded within a web-based learning environment, the use of virtual tutors provides novel opportunities to access educational content, along with new methods of conveying that content. One principal implementation is the possibility to take advantage of tutorial assistance over the internet. For this to be successful, however, the learner requires a high degree of freedom to customize the various teaching tools: these would include options to focus on individual aspects of the subject matter, to adapt the individual pace of study, and to retrieve dynamic visual aids. Such features make allowances for a student’s individual knowledge gaps, educational background, and special talents and interests. Also, they resolve the shortcomings of classroom/group teaching which cannot address the students’ various and often diverse cognitive resources, but rather forces the recipient into a course of non-autonomous, "paced" online processing.
A serious difficulty that so far has prevented anthropomorphic avatars from achieving widespread acceptance in education and training as well as in other fields stems from a seemingly paradoxical response regularly elicited by humanoid creatures: the more an avatar approaches the outward appearance of real human beings, the more aversion it engenders. Dubbed the Uncanny Valley, this odd phenomenon has proved an apparently insurmountable obstacle to the use of humanoid avatars in many areas of application, including motion picture production, advertisement, and instruction guides.
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This project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and by the European Social Fund of the European Union.