Instant messaging goes intelligent

Artificial intelligence engine allows virtual pet to decipher nuances in natural speech

"Is it possible to train machines to understand the way humans write and speak naturally, and to be able to then visualise people's ideas?" asks Sydney start-up Morf Interactive Communications when designing its artificial intelligence technology.

The company answers its own question with the MOJI Intelligent Messenger (MOJI IM), a three dimensional instant messaging application with intelligent virtual pets to enhance users' communication online.

Built from artificial intelligence technology initially developed by researchers at the University of New South Wales, MOJI IM uses an interactive heuristic engine to extract meaning, emotional nuances and syntax from what users type or say.

"We felt that to have a good commercial product as a start up, we probably need to have a low-cost, high-volume model; that's where we started getting interested in the instant messaging space," said Robert Fong, CEO of Morf Interactive Communications.

"Here was a platform where there was hundreds of thousands of conversations floating across the Internet each day, and no one was actually listening in, and harnessing meaning in that dialog for greater interactivity, and to create that unique experience in an instant messenger."

Understanding human speech allows a pet to learn about its owner and react to what is said during conversation, by generating images of what a user describes, or changing its appearance to suit a user's mood.

The intelligent messenger also acts as a cyber watchdog, by flagging threatening topics of conversation such as bullying, racism, sexism, and drugs, and notifying parents of any dangers via e-mail.

Aimed at the child and teenage market, MOJI IM will be delivered via a free download or CD. In the virtual world, called MOJIKAN, users can interact with their pets and with one another, blog, share information, photos and videos, play games, and shop for items using MOJI's own virtual currency.

While anyone can create a pet for free, pets begin requiring "food" after a three month trial period. Pet food and games are purchased in-game with virtual currency, which users younger than 14 years old can buy at a fixed rate using real world dollars.

For over 14s, MOJIKAN has a stock exchange system where the exchange rate between virtual and real world dollars varies according to supply and demand. The system works in a similar fashion to that of Linden Labs' virtual economy, Second Life, which has already proved successful, with real world spending of more than US$600,000 per day.

Fong expects the upkeep of each pet to cost users no more than $3 per month. While this does not seem like much money for the business, he expects that the amount will encourage a large volume of users to maintain their pets.

"The reason why we kept it this low is because we spin off the Korean model where it's really [about] micro payments, but lots of it," he said. "The main intention for the business model to succeed is that the user needs to have some sort of emotional attachment to the pet that then compels them to spend x amount of dollars to save that pet at the end of the free period."

MOJI IM is expected to be made available in to users in Australia and the South East Asia in May 2007.

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