Army’s Newest Recruit: A Fully Interactive Virtual Human

Published: October 24, 2007
Category: News

Sgt. Star never sleeps. He doesn’t stop to eat or drink either. It is not just that the strapping 6-foot-tall soldier is devoted to his job – traveling the country with Army recruiters answering questions about being in the Army.
Sgt. Star is always “on” because he is completely computer generated, a product of some of the latest advances in virtual human research and development taking place at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).
Here, every nuance of human behavior, from eye rolling to toe tapping and from word choice to voice tone, is studied and incorporated using ICT’s innovative interactive character technologies.
The goal is to infuse virtual humans like Sgt. Star with real-life emotions and actions as useful as they are unique. While Sgt. Star teaches about what it is like to be a soldier, other ICT virtual characters help develop skills in leadership, negotiation and cultural awareness.
“Sgt. Star is a shining example of the potential of virtual humans to aid in teaching and training,” said Randall Hill Jr., executive director of ICT. “From classrooms to boardrooms, we see endless opportunities for using characters from make-believe worlds to help people think more clearly and critically in the real world.”
Last year, ICT researchers were asked by the United States Army Accessions Command to bring Sgt. Star to life. Until now, he has existed as a non-animated web chat personality on the website.  There he responds verbally and in writing to visitor-typed questions using artificial intelligence software that was developed by Next IT of Spokane, WA.
ICT’s creation—which recently debuted at the Association of the United States Army Conference in Washington DC, is heading to the Future Farmers of America Conference in Indianapolis October 24 – 27 – elevates Sgt. Star to a new level of realism.
Projected onto a semi-transparent screen, he now appears full-sized and fully-formed. His chest moves with each breath, his eyebrows arch to certain questions.
And ICT’s expertise in bringing Hollywood storytelling techniques to cutting-edge computer graphics led to a personality to match his good looks.
He speaks, he shrugs, he laughs and he informs.
“Creating an interactive character such as Sgt Star is not dissimilar to bringing a traditional animated character to life,” said Diane Piepol who has a background in feature films and is the ICT project director who oversaw Sgt. Star’s creation. “We need to develop their scripted replies, their motivation and conversational gestures.”
Kim LeMasters, ICT’s creative director and a former entertainment industry writer, producer and executive, wrote a database of answers that can be matched to questions from members of the public. Now Sgt. Star is ready and willing to talk about topics including Army careers, training, education and tuition for college. He can also handle queries about the technology behind his development and explain how his creation fits in with plans for future Army training environments.
Apparently this team that spent countless hours getting Sgt. Star ready for his current tour of duty doesn’t need sleep either. They are already hard at crafting future generations of virtual humans who they envision serving as everything from museum guides to office receptionists.
“SGT Star shows that virtual human technology is ready to be moved out of the lab and into useful applications,” said Bill Swartout, ICT’s director of technology.  “As the technology we have currently under development in the lab matures, we can expect to see some amazing things from the successors to SGT Star in just a few years.”
About ICT
USC Institute for Creative Technologies brings together the best minds in cinema, science and technology to study and create interactive virtual environments. ICT is the leader in producing believable, unforgettable and accessible immersive experiences.
A unique collaboration between the entertainment industry, academia and the Department of Defense, ICT is revolutionizing learning through the development of educational and engrossing interactive digital media.