PRESENT sets out to create virtual digital humans -sentient agents- hat look entirely naturalistic, demonstrate emotional sensitivity, establish an engaging dialogue, add sense to the experience, and act as trustworthy guardians and guides in the interfaces for AR, VR, and more traditional forms of media.

There is no richer and more complex interaction than the human experience, when we use all our senses together with language and our cognitive abilities to understand our surroundings and interact with other people. Current Intelligent Personal Assistants or IPAs (such as Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa) are limited by comparison. IPAs do not as a rule have anthropomorphic representations: put more simply, they lack most of the features we rely on to communicate. We interact with them via smart phones and smart speakers; communication is voice driven and episodic, based on a request-response model. The assistants do not take advantage of visual clues or build an affective relationship that might evolve. While AR and VR involve visual and spatial data, the systems create physical barriers that restrict interaction by getting in the way of sensory input and communication. However, advances in the real-time creation of photorealistic computer generated characters, coupled with emotion and behaviour recognition, and natural language technologies, allow us to envisage a virtual agent that is realistic in both looks and behaviour; that can interact with users as they navigate rich and complex environments; converses in a natural manner; responds to human moods and emotional states; and evolves in response to the user’s behaviour. 

The creation of believable animated human characters has been a long-time quest, which can be traced back to Disney’s animation rules, which showed that movement and intention are key to making a figure believable. Recently, discussion has returned to the uncanny valley problem, which postulates that increasing the realism of characters increases believability up to a point, after which it suddenly drops, only regaining believability with a higher level of visual realism that is extremely hard to reach. The literature is inconclusive: some experiments have failed to reproduce the effect, while others take it for granted – but usually without considering the role of animation. We share the view that believability requires not only visual realism but also emotional sensitivity expressed through high quality animation in order to avoid a perceptual mismatch. The main improvements targeted by PRESENT focus on these concerns, plus the aspects of security and trust that make the technology trustworthy for the user.