Microsoft has released the final version of its Microsoft Agent software, which is aimed at making computer interfaces more approachable and interactive.
The software, available for download on the company's Web site, lets developers create ActiveX-based interactive character interfaces that live in their own windows for desktop and online applications.
The software includes sample characters, including a genie, a wizard, and a robot. It incorporates animation and speech recognition technologies, and it also can accept input through keyboard and mouse. The characters can be used as part of a help system, to provide interactive guides, as shopping assistants, or as part of a search system, Microsoft recommends.
System requirements include Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0, Internet Explorer 3.x, a 100-MHz Pentium PC, a Windows-compatible sound card, at least 16Mb of RAM, at least 661Kb free disk space for the ActiveX control, at least 1.26 Mb for speech output, and another 6.68Mb for speech input.
Microsoft also urged developers to follow certain guidelines when they build a character's "personality," such as making them polite, team players, quick with praise for users, and sensitive to gender issues.
"Always let the user choose when they want to interact with your character," states a document on the Microsoft Web site. "A user should be able to dismiss the character and have it return only with the user's permission. Forcing character interaction on users can have a serious negative effect," the document warns.