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Microsoft posts Agents tool beta

Microsoft has posted a second beta version of its software for building animated characters into Internet and ActiveX applications.

Microsoft (MSFT) has posted a second beta version of its Agents software for building animated characters into Internet and ActiveX applications.

Microsoft said today that beta 2.0 of Agents was posted last Friday.

"Pulling down menus and clicking on buttons don't give you many social cues," said Microsoft's Tandy Trower, director of the advanced user interface design group. "Put an animated character on the screen that can smile or wink at you, and we open the user interface for people to communicate in a way that's very natural for them."

Using work by two Stanford University researchers, Microsoft has created a software toolkit that allows developers to add "social interfaces," such as animated software characters, that Microsoft considers more appealing to some users than standard button-and-scrollbar interfaces.

The new beta software is available free to developers from Microsoft's Site Developers Workshop.

Microsoft Agent character interfaces are designed to enhance, not replace, existing application interfaces such as toolbars and menus. They can be used in online help systems or as "tour guides," "shopping assistants," or a front end to search engines.

The new technology also supports conventional use of the keyboard and mouse. A cast of sample characters comes with a library of gestures and animations, or developers can build their own characters, a new feature with this release.

Based on ActiveX, Agent interfaces can be used with HTML Web pages and applications written in any language that supports ActiveX, including C++, Java, and Visual Basic, as well as scripting languages such as JavaScript or Visual Basic, Scripting Edition.

New features in beta 2.0 include:
--Smaller size makes it faster and easier to use on the Web. Animations, speech recognition, and output engines can be downloaded as needed.
--Developers can show or hide characters, synchronize animation and speech output. Users can make characters disappear too.
--Applications can display several characters at once.
--Developers can create their own characters.

Agent's technology uses similar principles that Microsoft's Bob application had several years ago, software designed for novice computer users that bombed in the market.

But Agent is a developer tool that is more flexible than the Bob software, and it is positioned as an enhancement to existing user interfaces, not a replacement. So-called wizards in Microsoft Office 97 used a similar approach for help functions.