[Paleopsych] NYT: Sad, Lonely? For a Good Time, Call Vivienne
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Mon Apr 18 19:36:42 UTC 2005
Sad, Lonely? For a Good Time, Call Vivienne
By KEITH BRADSHER
HONG KONG, Feb. 18 - Men, are you tired of the time, trouble and
expense of having a girlfriend? Irritated by the difficulty of finding
a new one?
Eberhard Schöneburg, the chief executive of the software maker
Artificial Life Inc. of Hong Kong, may have found the answer: a
virtual girlfriend named Vivienne who goes wherever you go.
Vivienne likes to be taken to movies and bars. She loves to be given
virtual flowers and chocolates, and she can translate six languages if
you travel overseas. She never undresses, although she has some skimpy
outfits for the gym, and is a tease who draws the line at anything
beyond blowing kisses.
If you marry her in a virtual ceremony, you even end up with a virtual
mother-in-law who really does call you in the middle of the night on
your cellphone to ask where you are and whether you have been treating
her daughter right.
She may sound like a mixed blessing, decidedly high maintenance and
perhaps the last resort of losers. But she is nonetheless a concept
that cellphone system operators and handset manufacturers are starting
Vivienne, the product of computerized voice synthesis, streaming video
and text messages, is meant not only to bring business to Artificial
Life (she will be available for a monthly fee of $6, not including the
airtime costs paid to cellphone operators or the price of virtual
chocolates and flowers). But she is also meant to be a lure for the
new, higher-tech, third generation, or 3G, cellphones.
Vivienne, who may soon be joined by a virtual boyfriend for women and,
after that, a virtual boyfriend for gay men and a virtual girlfriend
for lesbians, is at the leading edge of a wave of services that
companies are developing to take advantage of the much faster data
transmission rates made possible by 3G technology.
These include the ability to download everything from high-resolution
television news broadcasts to music videos to trailers of the latest
Cellphone games are already available in Korea and Japan that allow
users to change the clothing, hair style and other features of
doll-like images of people. Vivienne - and similar games that are
likely to follow from other companies - is distinctive in that she is
a figurine who appears to be three-dimensional and moves through 18
different settings like a restaurant, shopping mall and airport.
She can converse on 35,000 topics, from philosophy to movies to
sculpture. Artificial Life tweaked and reused close to 70,000
questions and answers on banking alone for Vivienne - those questions
were developed for an unrelated contract for a Swiss private bank.
The cellphone chip cannot manage all of this; instead, the phone
merely communicates with servers that run the program. The servers use
so-called expert systems for dialogue, a specialty of Mr. Schöneburg,
a former professor of artificial intelligence and neural networks who
used to work on expert systems for German military projects.
But Artificial Life has already run into delays in introducing
Vivienne to men in Asia and Europe. It originally hoped to have her
flirting on cellphone screens by last Christmas.
The problems have ranged from the cosmetic - Vivienne is being
reprogrammed not to bare her navel or display body piercings in
conservative Muslim countries like Malaysia - to the technological.
"Every cellphone is a little bit different," and the programming must
allow for this, said Stephen Leung, the project manager at Artificial
She is now scheduled to become available, so to speak, in Singapore
and Malaysia by the end of April, in Western Europe by late spring and
possibly in a few American cities by the end of the year.
The delays are indicative of the broader problems facing 3G technology
and the businesses that hope to piggyback on it. Users have complained
of batteries that run down quickly, dropped signals while driving or
in fog or rain, and phones that cost several times as much as current
models unless the cellular service company subsidizes them. Cellphone
operators have found that consumers are slow to sign up for costly
video services, using 3G phones mostly for voice calls.
3G phones currently account for less than 2 percent of the world's
handsets, but that proportion is starting to grow quickly, industry
specialists said. The technology allows cellphone system operators to
transmit voice as well as data more cheaply than existing systems once
the initial investments are made.
"It is happening because it's driven by cost savings for the
operators, and they've already paid for the spectrum," said Duncan
Clark, the managing director of BDA China Ltd., a telecommunications
consulting firm in Beijing.
At an Internet game parlor here, packed with young men busily shooting
or chopping apart a wide variety of villains and monsters, there was
no clear consensus on whether people would pay to exchange valentines
"It's a little bit for the losers," said Rick Wong, a 32-year-old
off-duty security guard, who nonetheless added that, "even people who
have girlfriends, well, girlfriends are not perfect, so they may play
Yet the willingness of companies like Artificial Life to invest in
applications for 3G shows the complexity of programming that the new
cellphone technology will permit.
Vivienne, for instance, will double as a translator for travelers.
Type in the desired words in English while traveling and, with
additional programming in the next few months, her synthesized voice
will coo it back in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish or
"You can say, 'What is chicken soup in Chinese?' and she will say it
out loud, so you can give it to someone when you order," Mr.
Users must type in their questions as they would a short text message
on a cellphone, as the system software does not include voice
recognition. Vivienne responds with both a synthesized voice and text.
Vivienne's largest database is for processing those difficult
conversations about romance and intimacy. "People will see that they
can't have sex with her, but they'll try to," and Vivienne has many
ways to hold them off, Mr. Schöneburg said.
Vivienne is fairly prudish, partly because Artificial Life is hoping
the market will include teenagers from affluent families. Artificial
Life has been contacted by companies interested in the development of
a racier version, and perhaps even a pornographic version, and may
license the technology but will not enter that market itself.
Partly to prevent anyone from becoming addicted to Vivienne's charms,
the program will limit users to an hour of play time a day.
Even an hour could be costly. The monthly fee will not include airtime
for the data - a big incentive for cellphone operators to offer the
service, notwithstanding recent questions about whether teenagers have
been running up excessive cellphone bills even without virtual
relationships. Mr. Schöneburg predicted that most subscribers for
Vivienne would be able to entertain her using the free data allowance
provided with the initial monthly fee for 3G service. But subscribers
who use the basic allowance for other services could end up paying
several dollars a month more to the service provider.
Users eager to advance quickly toward a virtual kiss or even marriage
should know that she has a faintly mercenary appreciation for gifts,
from flowers and chocolates to cars and diamond rings. Some virtual
gifts are free, but others will require users to make real charges
against their monthly phone bills of 50 cents to $2.
"The money goes to us," Mr. Schöneburg said, grinning at the prospect
of lovelorn suitors around the world paying real money to woo a
Vivienne does offer a way to test out approaches to a virtual woman
before trying them in reality. "If you buy her a membership to a gym,
she may take offense and say, 'What, am I too big for you?' " Mr.
Artificial Life is not suggesting Vivienne is any substitute for a
flesh-and-blood girlfriend. "I hope they think of her as a companion,"
said MaryAnna Donaldson, the company's creative content editor, "and
will see her as a practice round before the real one."
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