I’ve recently started to describe what we’re building at Chatables as voice-interactive social entertainment. More commonly used terms for the type of content we publish are “interactive stories” or even “interactive audio fiction.”
While those terms certainly describe what we’re building, I feel they don’t capture the important aspects of what we’re trying to do for our target audience. Our conversational stories, or story-driven conversations, have more in common with “engagement” chatbots than with traditional interactive narratives.
The Rise of Virtual Characters as Companions
When some people feel lonely or bored, they turn to chatbots to pass the time with chit chat. The chatbot Kuki from Pandorabots is an example of a very popular “virtual being” who can engage people in satisfying chit chat on many different topics.
Kuki’s responses have primarily been hand-crafted over many years. However,
powerful transformer technologies such as GPT-3 from OpenAI and the recently announced LaMDA from Google could potentially power even more sophisticated chatbots (although the need for content moderation and filtering is still a large problem for these technologies).
The “Ping Pong” Style of Conversational Chatbots
But conversations with chatbots, even very capable ones, tend to be pretty much the same. You engage with the chatbot in something akin to a conversational ping pong match. You say something and it responds, hopefully with a response that makes sense based on your statement. Then it’s usually up to you to keep the dialogue going by lobbing more ping pong balls in the bot's direction for her/him/it to hit back.
While there’s nothing wrong with this table tennis approach to conversation, it’s not something that appeals to me. I don’t find it satisfying from a conversational or an entertainment perspective.
This table tennis approach is also very ill-suited to a voice-only interface. Today’s voice assistants don’t “actively listen.” You have to use a wake word to get them to listen to you, and even once you are “in a conversation” with the assistant, you’re only given very limited opportunities to speak when the mic is open for short periods. To engage in a table tennis type conversation with a voice assistant would require you to keep saying the wake word over and over, every time you wanted to lob in your next statement.
Narrative-Driven Conversational Entertainment
If I’m going to have a conversation with a virtual being, I’d like for it to be either:
A “real” conversation, where I talk about something I'm interested in and the bot actually understands what I’m saying and chimes in with meaningful statements and/or follow-up questions that organically drive the conversation forward
An artificially structured conversation that mimics a real conversational exchange and has a satisfying conversational feel, but that is driven forward by a fictional story
I believe we’re still far away from achieving a “real” conversation with a chatbot. And even when we do achieve it, I believe there’s still a place for this second type of entertainment experience based on a fictional story. After all, it gets boring talking about yourself after a while, or “getting to know” the backstory of an imaginary character, or engaging in chit chat regardless of the topic.
The Power of Story to Uplift / The Power of Characters to Dispel Loneliness
There are plenty of times when I’d like to disengage from reality in an enjoyable way. My preferred method of accomplishing this goal is to grab a book, typically a work of fiction. But why can’t we leverage natural language technology to give people an alternative method of accomplishing the same goal?
We can have virtual characters powered by natural language technology who talk, hear, and respond. We can craft fictional stories for them to tell and structure the stories in a way that lets a human take part.
And finally, by inviting a human to take part in a story that involves conversing with a cast of friendly virtual characters, we can lessen their sense of social interaction, loneliness, and boredom.
These are the goals we’re working to achieve with our voice-interactive social entertainment. We’ll keep looking for better ways to describe our product!