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ICT Virtual Humans Ada and Grace Talk Science at AAAS in San Diego

February 26, 2010

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NSF showcases science education collaboration with Museum of Science, Boston

Ada and Grace, two bright and bubbly young women literally stopped visitors in their tracks in the National Science Foundation (NSF) expo booth at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in San Diego.

“I heard them talking and really liked their personalities,” said 16-year-old Joshua Glover, a student from the United Kingdom attending the meeting as part of a school trip. “I was impressed that they could understand what people were asking them.”

What impressed Glover, and other attendees, is that the women in question – and answering questions – were not real people but life-like computer-generated virtual human characters created as part of an NSF-funded collaboration between the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and the Museum of Science, Boston.

“Ada and Grace represent an exciting and potentially transformative medium for engaging the public in science”, said Jeff Nesbit, director of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs.

They were selected to be featured at the NSF booth at the AAAS conference in large part because of their ability to highlight the educational and research potential of virtual characters by getting them out of the lab and interacting with people in meaningful and memorable ways.

“It is a tremendous honor to have our technology showcased by the National Science Foundation,” said Bill Swartout, ICT’s director of technology. “ICT virtual characters are currently being developed for a wide variety of roles, from helping train clinicians in diagnosing mental health conditions to helping military officers practice interpersonal leadership skills.  I hope Ada and Grace are just the beginning in a line of virtual characters used to expose the public to science.”

Currently in service as guides at the Boston museum’s Cahners ComputerPlace, Ada and Grace help staff and volunteers make visits there richer by answering visitor questions, suggesting exhibits and explaining the technology that makes them work.

Named for Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, two inspirational female computer science pioneers, these digital docents are trailblazers in their own right. They are among the first and most advanced virtual humans ever created to speak face-to-face with museum visitors.

According to Dan Noren, the program manager at the museum who has been working with the duo since they arrived last December, having virtual museum guides on hand enhances their team.

“These virtual humans are getting people’s attention in a way that a real person can’t,” he said. “They are able to capture the imagination of everyone from esteemed and established scientists at this conference to school groups with little science exposure who come through our museum.”

The hope, all the collaborators on this project agree, is that one of those young people who meet Ada and Grace might be inspired to pursue a career in science and one day present their research at a conference like AAAS.  And judging by the enthusiastic reaction of students like Joshua Glover, that day might not be far off.

“I definitely wanted to learn more,” he said.

Learn more about Ada and Grace.