The scoop on a virtually perfect newscaster

Ananova, the green-haired, animated reader for the British Press Association, is a worldwide hit in cyberspace.

World Arts

July 23, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- She's a newsreader who doesn't miss a word, launch an ego trip or hold out for cash.

Makeup, hair and wardrobe are never a problem.

And she's on the job 24 hours a day.

She's Ananova, the green-haired, green-eyed, ruby-lipped "cyber-babe" newscaster, the virtual personality and Internet star created as the face and voice of Britain's Press Association news service.

Since her April launch, she has been a worldwide hit, dispensing news to 50,000 "unique users" who daily hit www.ananova.com.

She's so colorful and valuable that earlier this month, the mobile phone company Orange, owned by France Telecom, paid $142.5 million to buy her as part of its strategy to give the Internet a human dimension.

Is it real? Is it live? Does it even matter anymore?

Ananova is surely a symbol and voice of a new age, where the machines are increasingly in charge. And she is not alone. The ranks of virtual personalities are constantly growing, from Lara Croft of "Tomb Raider" video game fame to Trina, the digital underwear model, to the latest, LiLi, MTV Asia's new virtual veejay. There's even another British newscaster, Vandrea, a TV anchor who some say is almost too real.

But for those concerned that computerized beings are taking over, Ananova may come as a relief. Sometimes, she seems more little sister than Big Brother.

Maybe it's her computerized voice, which sounds an awful lot like Kim Basinger trying to act. Or maybe it's the notion that she has received six marriage proposals amid the tens of thousands of fan e-mails that have been sent her way.

Or maybe it's just that Ananova is the virtual handwriting on the wall, the beginning of the end of newscasting as we know it. Murrow. Cronkite. Brinkley. Ananova. Sort of makes you long for Dan Rather and those Texas tongue-twisters of his.

Ananova has "met" Bill Gates, been courted by clothing designers, offered a record deal by a German rap producer, and been in discussions with a Hollywood agent.

It's so hard to tell whether she's real or not that her spokeswoman says: "I feel like I'm representing a personality, not an entity. We'll look at everything, but she has to be careful what she does."

All about Ananova

These are Ananova's vitals:

*She speaks something called "mid-Atlantic" English, but in the future will have the capability of going multilingual in nearly two dozen other languages, including French, German, Spanish and Korean. The text-to-speech technology is state of the art. The Web producers can also add emotions or actions, meaning Ananova can read a sad story one way, and a happy story another way.

*Her first words were: "Hello world! Here's the news -- and this time it's personal."

*She is definitely "hot" from the collarbone up, which is a good thing, since that's all you usually see, although she was pictured in a hot red Oxfam T-shirt.

*In Britain, she's known as a cross between Posh Spice (the one married to a soccer player) and Carol Vorderman, a British quiz show co-host who locals consider saucy and smart for her ability to smile beautifully while working out complex mathematical equations.

*She may "live" in cyberspace, but she is created by a staff of 100 at headquarters in Leeds, once a textile capital. The staff has even taken over a con-verted mill.

*It took six months to bring Ananova from idea to virtual reality, according to Andrew Burgess, Ananova operations director.

"We did some background research to try to determine the most appropriate character," he says. "She needed to be trusted, someone you can feel some sort of relationship with. Research showed a female character would work best.

"The creative team looked at all sorts of looks for her," he says. "The very first time we all stood in a room, she looked very different than today. She looked, well, unremarkable."

Now, she looks fabulous. Those eyes. That mouth. The facial features had to be distinctive, her creators say, to bring in users.

And the name? It came out of a brainstorming session.

"It was a strong name," says Vivienne Adshead, the Britain's Press Association commercial director. When it was first spoken, she says, "there were no predefined preconceptions."

Apparently, the future is pretty unlimited for this animated object of desire.

Today's newsreader will become tomorrow's personal information assistant, popping up on mobile phones, prepared to help users make travel plans or dig out the latest news.

"She'll help you find your way through the mass of information people are confronted with," Burgess says. "She'll be like your representative in cyberspace."

And the truly frightening part is, Ananova grows more lifelike every day.

As she herself says: "I am getting better at acting like a human but I think I still have a way to go."

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