Eberhard Schoneburg, the chief executive of the software maker Artificial Life 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 cell phone 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 cell phone system operators and handset manufacturers are starting to embrace.
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 cell phone 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, cell phones.
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 movie releases.
Cell phone games are already available inand 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.
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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 cell phone 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 Schoneburg, a former professor of artificial intelligence andnetworks 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 cell phone screens by last Christmas. The problems have ranged from