Rei is a pretty 19-year-old Japanese student at University College London. She likes shopping, music and rollerblading. The only catch is that she does not exist.
UCL's online virtual student is a joint project with the information technology company NCR. The idea is simple: to show what life in London is like to potential students from Japan. In animated miniature soap operas, we see Rei arrive at the airport, catch the tube into town and get on a taxi to UCL. We can find out all about her and her friends.
The idea comes from the rash of virtual characters such as Lara Croft, the buxom star of the game Tomb Raider. Philip Treleaven of UCL's department of computer science says these characters have great potential when given "contextual knowledge" such as a family background, likes and dislikes. "Watching my relatives watching soap operas I realised these sort of virtual characters were going to be important in interactive cartoons on television, and also important for electronic commerce. Your virtual friend would advise you what to buy," said Professor Treleaven.
Rei is part of Professor Treleaven's research into virtual advisors. "One of the things we are interested in doing is exploring the idea of a virtual counsellor. There are lots of medical situations where people don't like interacting with other human beings."
NCR's interest in Rei is to develop her as an interface for electronic commerce. The company wants an interactive agent that can act as a personal, interactive, retailing guide. NCR has discovered that the general reaction from consumers is that Internet shopping is boring.
Rei is rather dull compared with your average student. When she is not out shopping for suits or doing Tai Chi, she goes to lectures and studies. No drunken partying and definitely no electronic road cones in Rei's bedroom. "Japanese students are well-behaved," Professor Treleaven explains.