||This page gives a demo of how MS Agent characters can be added to a web page.|
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Try Out Microsoft Agent
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How MS Agent Works
Microsoft Agent 2.0 is a technology that can add animated figures to web pages and applications.We are studying how it can be used to make the Growth House web site more user-friendly. Agent is a technology that includes a programming interface that can be coded from any language that supports COM, such as C#, C++, or Visual Basic®. It also includes an ActiveX® control that makes it easy to program from languages like Visual Basic or from scripting languages like VBScript or JScript®. To view the results of the script, the page must be viewed with a browser like Microsoft Internet Explorer that supports ActiveX and these scripting languages.
The Microsoft Agent programming interface is based on COM. By using COM, Agent enables multiple applications, or clients, to use its animation services simultaneously. These services include the ability to load a character, play a specified animation, speak using a synthesized speech engine or audio file, and respond to user input. Automatic lip-synch support is provided for spoken output. The image of the character is rendered in a region window (a window shaped to the exterior mask of the animation image) enabling the character to appear anywhere on the screen independent of the window of the client application. This technique was developed not only because of its flexibility in displaying the character, but also because it creates a greater illusion that the character is operating within the user's windowed environment.
Spoken text appears in a word balloon. Text defined in the Speak method is also spoken audibly if a compatible synthesized text-to-speech (TTS) speech engine is installed. While Microsoft provides a US English TTS engine that may be used, the Agent speech interfaces are based on the industry standard Speech API (SAPI). This means that Agent can be hosted with speech engines provided by other vendors in other languages. Spoken output can also be supported by using recorded .wav files.In addition to programming a character to respond to keyboard or mouse input, Agent also includes support for speech input. To support speech input, the user must have a SAPI 4.0-compliant Command and Control speech recognition engine installed that matches the character's language ID setting.
In order to use a MS Agent character, the animation must be available on the client computer. This can be done either by installing the complete character on the client computer, or by remotely invoking specific animation behaviors via HTTP requests. In web-based applications, a problem with the use of these characters is that they are not universally-installed on all client systems, and HTTP-based invocations of animation behaviors can be bandwidth-intensive. Remote invocation of ActiveX controls may also be blocked by user security settings, preventing execution of animation effects.
Do interactive characters add real value to a web site or application? Research conducted by Nass and Reeves (The Media Equation, Cambridge Press) has demonstrated that humans will respond to social cues presented by interactive technology similar to the way they will respond to another person. This has huge implications for the design of application and Web user interfaces. Up to now, human factors specialists have focused on the cognitive and usability aspects of design. Tapping into the social aspects of communication provides the potential for designing more natural interaction. As Nass and Reeves have reported, social expectations and responses can be generated from the wording of text on the screen. Add an interactive character that can show meaningful facial expressions and gestures, and you significantly expand the potential bandwidth of communication.