Watson’s Avatar: Just Abstract Art?

February 17, 2011

This video describes the visual design of the “avatar” for Watson – the Jeopardy-playing AI that recently debuted on the Jeopardy show.

This is a lovely example of generative art. Fun to watch as it swirls and swarms and shimmers. But I do not think it is a masterpiece of avatar design – or even information design in general. The most successful information design, in my opinion, employs natural affordances – the property of expressing the function or true state of an animal or thing. Natural affordances are the product of millions of years of evolution. Graphical user interfaces, no matter how clever and pretty, rarely come close to offering the multimodal stimuli that allow a farmer to read the light of the sky to predict rain, or for a spouse to sense the sincerity of her partner’s words by watching his head motions and changes in gaze.

Watson’s avatar, like many other attempts at visualizing emotion, intent, or states of human communication, uses arbitrary visual effects. They may look cool, but they do not express anything very deep.

…although Ebroodle thinks there is something pretty deep going on with Watson, as in… world domination.

Despite my criticism, I do commend Joshua Davis, the artist who developed the avatar. It is difficult to design non-human visual representations of human expression and communication. But it is a worthy effort, considering the rampant uncanny valley effect that has infected so much virtual human craft for so long, caused by artists (or non-artists) trying to put a literal human face on something artificial.

What Was Watson Thinking?

Watson’s avatar takes the form of a sphere with a swarm of particles that swirl around it. The particles migrate up to the top when Watson is confident about its answer, and to the bottom when it is unsure. Four different colors are used to indicate levels of confidence. Green means very confident. Sounds pretty arbitrary. I’ve never been a fan of color for indicating emotion or states of mind – it is overused, and ultimately arbitrary. Too many other visual affordances are underutilized (such as styles of motion).

Contradiction Between Visual and Audible Realism

Here’s something to ponder: Watson’s avatar is very abstract and arty. But Watsons voice is realistic … and kinda droll. I think Watson’s less-than-perfect speech creates a sonic uncanny valley effect. Does the abstraction of Watsons visual face help this problem, or make it more noticeable?

Is the uncanny valley effect aggravated when there is a discrepancy between visual and audible realism? I can say with more confidence that the same is true when visual realism is not met with complimentary behavioral realism (as I discuss in my book).

Am I saying that Watson should have a realistic human face – to match its voice? Not at all! That would be a disaster. But this doesn’t mean that its maker can craft abstract shapes and motions with reckless abandon. Indeed, the perception of shapes and colors changing over time – accompanied by sound – is the basis for all body language interpretation – it penetrates deep into the ancient communicative energy of planet Earth. Body language is the primary communication channel of humans as well as all animals. Understanding these ancient affordances is a good way to become good at information design.

Hmm – I just got an image of Max Headroom in my mind. Max Headroom had an electronic stutter in his voice as well as in his visual manifestation. Audio and video were complimentary. It would be kinda fun to see Max as Watson’s avatar.

What do you think, my dear Watson?


February 3, 2011

When my wife lay in a hospital bed for several weeks with a burst appendix, I spent a lot of time by her side. I was horrified by the cacophony in the recovery ward. How can anyone expect to heal when they are surrounded by a jungle of machines beeping incessantly? And what about the hospital staff? I decided that the nurses could just as easily be responding to the sound of bird calls. These machines could be playing the sounds of songbirds instead of emitting the sonic equivalent of a finger repeatedly poking you in the eye. Not only would bird calls make for a more pleasant soundscape in the hospital, but different bird calls could be used for different meanings.

Below is a poem I wrote many years ago which expresses my feelings about the way machines talk to us.


I came to the conclusion the other day
That our machines have something to say
Our cars, our phones, our computer screens,
Our ovens and our bank machines

They’re learning how to speak to us
Yes, times are changing and so they must
How could we ever get along
If they didn’t tell us when something’s wrong?

“Your seatbelt’s off”
“Don’t forget your card”
“Don’t click me there”
“Don’t press too hard”

But the builders of these technologies
Have yet to give them personalities
I think our machines might benefit, you see,
By having a bigger vocabulary!

There’s another gripe I need to share
A concern for which you may not care
There’s pollution in my neighborhood
I’d love to end it if I could

You hear that incessant beep beep beep?
It woke me from my morning sleep
Six blocks east on Main and First
A van just went into reverse

The device which generates this din
was built to reach the ears within
a ten block radius of this city
that all may know the van’s velocity

Folks living in a future world
May wince and twitch at what they once heard
Recalling the voice of our technology
This low-resolution cacaphony


Beep beep beep beep!

This is the third post of my new blog. I expect to have more things to say about body language in user interface design – not just regarding avatars in virtual worlds. I think the subject of virtual body language spans across all kinds of technology.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!