Playing with the digital human

Whenever Tom Tuček talks about the world, he invariably needs to specify: Are we talking about the real world or virtual worlds? A doctoral student at the Department of Information Technology, he is currently investigating digital humans, i.e. virtual characters such as those we encounter in video games. Tom Tuček would like to find out how contact with digital humans equipped with new artificial intelligence affects players.

Digital humans are figures that only exist in the digital world and, unlike digital twins, they have no counterpart in reality. They are not controlled by a human, instead they are artificially intelligent”, Tom Tuček explains. At present, characters like this are not commonplace in computer games: As a rule, virtually every action the characters perform in a game is pre-programmed. However, thanks to the latest developments in machine learning, this could soon be history: “Research is set to achieve a form of intelligence that will elude us to a certain extent: Even the developers won’t fully understand why the characters do what they do. It’s going to be very exciting.” In the games industry, the integration of generative artificial intelligence is currently proving to be a crucial game changer. The level of difficulty for the companies also depends on the type of game, as Tom Tuček goes on to explain: “With competitive games, the options are straightforward: If the AI is the player’s adversary, its sole aim is to win. However, narrative games, which tell a story, are much more complex. The aim is not to offer only a selection of actions, but rather to be able to interact directly with the character. This is much more dynamic, but also more exciting.”

Tom Tuček firmly believes that research into interaction with digital humans can have a powerful positive impact: “Think of people who struggle to socialise with others, especially when they are young. Gaming could provide them with a safe space where they can practise their skills by interacting with digital humans.” The Game Studies research team at the Department of Information Technology is also collaborating on joint projects addressing this topic with researchers from the Department of Psychology. Tom Tuček elaborates: “In Game Studies, we call the space the magic circle. When you enter this circle, you can do whatever you like. In theory, none of this has any effect on the real world. This encourages actions that you would otherwise not dare to take because you feel restricted by social circumstances.”

Naturally, anyone who talks about the possibilities of video games with such enthusiasm is likely playing a lot of video games themselves. We enquire critically: What appeals to you about the idea of wearing a VR headset and interacting with a digital character? “I think this is important for the world and for society. But I also enjoy it on a personal level.”, Tom Tuček explains and adds: “Many of us take social interactions for granted, but technologies like this make them accessible to many people for the first time.” Spending a lot of his time in the digital world also provides him with a high degree of mobility. Tom Tuček completed a Bachelor’s degree in Media Informatics at the Vienna University of Technology and a Bachelor’s degree in Japanese Studies at the University of Vienna. He subsequently spent a year in Japan working on video games from a Cultural Studies perspective. Later, attracted by the unique combination of technology and culture, he came to Klagenfurt for the Master’s degree programme in Game Studies and Engineering. “I’m fascinated by both: I enjoy developing and programming games, but I’m also interested in seeing them embedded in a cultural setting.” Choosing Klagenfurt as a place to study came easy to him: “Because I spend a lot of time online, I can keep in touch wherever I am. And the landscape here is very beautiful. The mountains and the lakes, you can’t get that in the digital world.”

A few words with … Tom Tuček

What would you be doing today if you hadn’t chosen to work as a scientist?

The obvious answer is probably video game developer. The less obvious answers are cook or stay-at-home husband.

Do your parents understand the things you are working on?
My parents are both tech-savvy and also very familiar with video games. So, I would say at least 50%.

What is the first thing you do in the office each morning?
Open the window, get the air flowing, and get the coffee started.

What makes you furious?
Waiting times that are completely unpredictable (more anxiety than fury).

What calms you down?
Music, nature, naps.

Do you go on proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?
I’m actually (still) quite good at that, although I struggle to make myself completely uncontactable.

What are you afraid of?
Apart from the aforementioned waiting times, the ignorance and indifference of many people scares me.

What are you looking forward to?
Time for relaxation & travelling to Japan.