The subject of robots with personality, a centerpiece of my little emerging epic poem, reminds me of a talk I saw a number of years ago, given by my friend Athomas, within an entire afternoon session of talks around the question of what makes a virtual interactive character believable.

The previous talk had focused on showcasing a commercial product — a little animated character that could march around on your screen and make various comments that would show up as speech bubbles. The character was supposed to be cute, but it mainly came across as annoying. I think this was because the guy giving the talk was pretending that the character was making decisions on its own, while it was obvious that the whole thing was canned; the animated character was merely playing out bits of a pre-recorded script every time the presenter clicked on the screen. The vague air of intellectual dishonesty about the whole charade was rather off-putting.

In contrast, Athomas gave a straight PowerPoint presentation — text only. It was clear there would be no animated cartoon characters in this talk. He started out talking about the underlying philosophical and literary underpinnings of the quest for believability, the historical roots of believable characters, Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and other really interesting stuff.

But at some point in the middle of his talk Athomas made a point and gestured toward the screen — and the PowerPoint text showed something that disagreed with what he had just said. He restated the point, flipping to the next slide, and the PowerPoint text disagreed even more strongly.

What followed was quite amazing. Athomas proceeded to get into an argument with his PowerPoint presentation. Things started to get ugly. Names were called. He and his presentation clearly had different ideas on the subject of creating believable interactive characters, and neither one was willing to give an inch.

Finally the PowerPoint presentation pulled a power play. After saying something rather rude and insulting about its creator, it proceeded to go blank entirely — the ultimate refusal to cooperate. Athomas was left sputtering, standing in front of an empty screen. Soldiering onward with no slides, he summed up and proceeded to take questions from the audience.

The entire thing was a tour de force. We in the audience had just witnessed a screen consisting only of text come vividly to life, argue with its creator, and assert its independence of viewpoint and thought. All without a single animation, or even a picture.

I am fairly certain that I have never seen a more believable interactive character — or one with more personality.

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