Friday, June 12, 2009

Speaking My Language

I just finished the first chapter of The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar, written by Mark C. Baker and published by Basic Books. The book follows Baker's dissection of the human notion of "language" and asserts that all world languages are composed of the same theoretical building blocks. This idea doesn't originate from Baker but it's certainly relatively new in the study of linguistics, and he's done an excellent job (as far as an Introduction and one chapter can demonstrate) so far disseminating his ideas in an entertaining and readable way.

I'm not a linguistics person, but I guess I'm used to dealing with "the abstract" in computer science. Still, I was worried this book might be too over my head for me to get through. I'm not yet claiming its material is entirely within my mental grasp, but the obscure trivia and fun facts peppered throughout the text keep it relevant and entertaining. Did you know the Navajo people have more than ten verbs for "to carry," depending on the type of object the person is carrying?

Fun facts, aside, however, my main reason for reading this book is in preparation for the research I'll be doing in the Fall semester in Natural Language Processing; if you're not familiar with the term, you must not be a computer science nerd. NLP is a fascinating topic that deals with the problem of getting a computer to understand, interpret, and "speak" a human language such as English. If you've ever laughed at a free online translator or been frustrated by a search engine's inability to understand what exactly you're looking for, then you are an unknowing proponent of NLP research.

I'm partly interested in NLP due to its natural implications for games. Fa├žade, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's "one-act interactive drama," is an excellent piece of non-linear storytelling that makes use of this technology. Peter Molyneux's recently-unveiled tech demo for "Milo," a virtual boy who interacts with the player via Microsoft's Project Natal, looks to combine NLP with other technologies for a "life-like" experience. Even much simpler games could lend themselves to this technology - a game like 5th Cell's upcoming Scribblenauts, combined with a C-3PO-like understanding of human language, could open up a lot of exciting possibilities.

Time to reign it in, though. After all, I'm only up to Chapter 2: In Which the Ambitions and Dreams of a Young Game Designer are Crushed by the Harsh Truths of Reality.

Can you think of any other experiences in your own life that would be aided by this technology? Feedback and discussion are welcome and encouraged in the comments.


  1. f1rST ps0T!!!!!11111

    Also, I'd love to try Milo, but I'd have to agree with the guy from Penny Arcade: "Illusions of the kind he proposes are tremendously fragile - it's hard enough to maintain them in raw text, without the idiosyncrasies of the nested recognition systems in play with Milo." While Facade was definitely a good attempt, the times when the characters either blatantly ignored the player or misunderstood them tended to detract significantly from the play experience.

    I actually think the best example I've seen of voice recognition in a game is "Tom Clancy's EndWar" on the Xbox 360, which just uses your commands to direct your military units around. (Now, that doesn't really qualify as NLP, since it's just looking for specific templates, but even so I think it's the best example of a voice based game I've seen. (Then again, I never played SeaMan on the Dreamcast!)

  2. well, it does beg the question- would going any further beyond, like, EndWar or Odama or that one PS2 game whose name I forget and vaguely remenber's basic phrase parsing make for anything entertaining beyond Facade?

  3. Remember that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the guy is afraid to deliver ammo to his comrades because he doesn't want to get shot? That's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie (unless it's in another movie... in which case there's something memorable here). Well a situation like THAT would make a war game with voice-controls really moving, but it would need something like Facade's ability to figure out what the player is talking about.

    Imagine not just yelling "medic" and seeing results, but needing to convince him to come running across the battlefield because this is the first battle he's joined you in and he's scared. Or alternatively, imagine BEING the medic and hearing someone else call "medic," but you have no magic game-radar, and so you must yell over the sounds of gunfire to ask them where they are.

  4. But still, I'm not entirely seeing the necessity of NLP here. It's a lot easier to simply do some quick voice recognition and pick out words which then correspond to particular responses/actions.

    I think a better example would be more for the education side of things. Playing "detective" or something like that, with the AI who analyzes your questions and spits back partially truthful answers, which you, as the player, must then decode yourself.


  5. It's true. There are very few games that would benefit from the computer ALLOWING you to say whatever you wanted. Games are founded on rules, which restrict the allowed actions - it wouldn't be good if your squadmates in a shooter started chatting with you about baseball just because they could. But if they have the ability to, the technology does not need to change between SOCOM and the game you just described. Only the rules do.

  6. Walking around town gathering information from NPCs will take a turn for the more interesting.

  7. Facade did a great job with Grace and times they really seemed to embody the illusion of a two conscious entities that listened, thought, and reacted (in accordance with the story/scenarios). After a few minutes of playing though, it's always a little frustrating when they completely ignore things, or their emotions will swing from "Please sit down! =)" to "#$*%! GET OUT!) faster than you can say Molyneux. If we could make mood, topic, and reaction transitions a little smoother, I think NLP has the potential to be game dynamite.

    Holy creepy faces, Batman!

  8. Oh yeah, and this is Anna. haha.


Your thoughts go here.