A few years back (2001?) I played around with LifeFX (Windows/IE only) which at that point had a funky email program (FaceMail?) you could download and then its avatar software would recite your emails to you with speech synthesis, a “life-like” avatar and recognition of emoticons. So I was interested when I saw this today: Wired News: Avatars Among Us.
I remember discussing with some friends that the way that sociable computers might come about would not be through embodied robotics but through an AI system hooked up to an avatar (maybe trained through embodied robotics though). If you spend you day interacting with a life-like avatar then over time you may come to consider it more than a program on your computer (or PDA or media player).
LifeFX was developed in part using technology researched in part here at the University of Auckland for medical simulations. There’s an article here about it: Wired 8.12: Must Read – Interface2face.
Oh, and there are some video clips of it here: LifeFX Demos.