If anyone else tuned in to see Watson on Jeopardy! a couple of weeks ago, you may have noticed that his presence at the podium was merely an LCD monitor with some animations playing with a synthesized voice playing over a loudspeaker. After 7 years of work and millions of dollars, one would think IBM could do better. And they did, but most people probably never noticed it. The reality is, they essentially created an emotion engine for a thinking computer using design and technology that showcased both in a way never before possible.
IBM auditioned voice actors that spent weeks in a recording booth reading thousands of lines of text. They even called embassies and restaurants to find out exactly how to pronounce cities or dishes in the event that by some slim chance, they would be a possible answer. Ultimately, a text-to-speech system was used to convey answers on the show. But what about emotions?
For Watson's visual avatar, generative artist Joshua Davis had a lot of unknowns. How do you make a machine on TV play Jeopardy! and look pretty? Does it appear humanoid or abstract? Based on IBM's well-known Smarter Planet logo, Davis created a system of dots that trailed each other around the sphere. The concept was that their position would change and react based on variables like Watson's confidence level. These changes also matched a color system that was mapped to Watson's levels of confidence and on the fly reactions. This meant that at any given time, the audience would know visually how the computer was feeling based on it's expressions, much like the human contestants in the game. Pretty impressive stuff.
So as you can see, this wasn't just simply an emoticon or animated GIF looping on a Dell monitor, it was actually a very complex system of computer generated art that was created alongside a very complex computer personality. Davis and the IBM Watson team pioneered a whole genre of art that previously wasn't possible. And of course, this is just the beginning. I'd like to see where this concept goes in terms of reflecting mood and confidence in other applications. The mood ring just might be back.