Researchers aim for virtual Newtons or Einsteins

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"For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," says Isaac Newton, throwing his long wavy hair over a shoulder and adjusting the collar of his 17th-century shirt.

A 13-year-old boy wrinkles his brow and steps with baggy pants onto an orange skateboard.

"Don't understand? Let's use your skateboard as an example," says Newton, pointing toward the device invented centuries after his death.

These are not actors but rather a curious modern-day boy interacting with a life-like, computer-generated version of the famous physicist who authored the three laws of motion —- among other things.

So far, that kind of conversation is still fiction. But it's the ultimate goal of a new research project that plans to merge gaming technology with artificial intelligence to build an archive of virtual figures that behave and respond as naturally as real people.

"We are for the first time creating technology that is focused on archiving people rather than artifacts," said Jason Leigh, associate professor and director of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "These avatars will be able to field questions, provide opinions and make recommendations just like a human."

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