ERCIM News No.30 - July 1997

Intelligent Interfaces for the Exploration of our Cultural Heritage

by Oliviero Stock

Artificial Intelligence, and in particular intelligent interfaces, may open new scenarios for tourism and the fruition of our cultural heritage. The main prospect made possible by the adoption of these technologies is to move from the current mass-oriented approach to an approach oriented toward the individual. This has at least two facets: on the one side, systems will have to take into account the specificity of the user with his own interests, idiosyncrasies, and so on; on the other, the user will be the main agent in his exploration, he will take the initiative and exploit the high level of interactivity that will be available in intelligent interfaces.

With this vision of the future, at IRST (Institute for Scientific and Technological Research), Trento, we have worked for several years at integrating some advanced research concepts in a complex system. The resulting prototype, called AlFresco, has been demonstrated widely and is often mentioned as a reference system in the new area of intelligent multimedia systems.

AlFresco is a natural language dialogue system for a user interested in XIVth century Italian frescoes and paintings. It aims not only to provide information on a specific work of art, but also to promote other masterpieces that may appeal to the user. It runs on a workstation connected to a videodisk unit and a touch screen. The particular videodisk in use includes images of frescoes and monuments. Besides understanding and using language, the system integrates it with hypermedia both in input and output. The user can interact with the system by typing a sentence, navigating in the underlying hypertext, and using the touch screen. In input, our efforts have been focused on combining the interpretation of linguistic deictic references with pointing to images displayed on a touch screen. In output, images and automatically generated text with buttons offer entry points for further hypertextual exploration. The result is that the user communicates both linguistically and by manipulating various entities, images, and text itself.

AlFresco thus provides a suitable environment for the exploration of a large information space where the user may integrate moments of goal-oriented investigation and browsing within a coherent overall dialogue.

A system like AlFresco can constitute the basis for culture and art exploration at home. But we believe nothing can take the place of a visit to the 'real thing'. The emotion is different. So the whole cultural experience can be seen as encompassing three phases, each of which can take advantage of technology: support before the visit, during the visit and after the visit.

The AlFresco prototype.


A new project has thus been started recently with the objective of supporting the visitor during his visit to the museum or art gallery. The perspective is that the visitor moves in the physical space while seeking information and guidance. It is important to emphasise that the user is not moving in virtual space but in a real space (such as a museum), augmented with a personalized informational dimension. The system presents information on the basis of explicit input on the part of the visitor and on the basis of his current position and of the history of the visit so far. The overall approach includes a personalized user model that can vary the material presented according to the different interests and knowledge of the particular visitor. This prototype is being developed with the Museum of Rovereto, in the Trentino region. In collaboration with a local company, the museum has obtained a patent for a device in which infrared technology is integrated with a PDA (Portable Digital Assistance), so that the position of the visitor at any given moment is easily computed.

An Esprit Project beginning in June 1997, in the Intelligent Interactive Interfaces Subprogramme, will build on this experience. The project, called HIPS, has the University of Siena as the prime contractor and includes a large European consortium (IRST, Univ. of Edinburgh, Univ. College Dublin, GMD (Germany), Sintef (Norway), Siette (Italy), CB&J (France).

One of the most interesting aspects of this new development is that we shall include the capacity of generating coherent text (to be synthesised) for the user, taking into account the actual unfolding of his visit. Both the University of Edinburgh and IRST have a relevant experience in the area of automatic text generation, the field that aims at producing coherent language out of internal non linguistic data. The process includes aspects such as the choice of what to communicate and how to best communicate, both as overall planning of the sequence of sentences and for the production of correct and coherent individual sentences.

The generation system has been designed to be flexible, so that the characteristics of the reader/hearer can be taken into account; a second feature is that different output languages can be integrated into the same framework without any conceptual difficulties (as opposed to machine translation). These features are expected to open a whole new perspective for the future of tourism and cultural visits, an area that, especially for Italy, is of strategic importance. For more information on ALFresco see see

Please contact:
Oliviero Stock - IRST
Tel: +39 461 314517

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