Sunday, January 20, 2013

On choosing a communication method for an animated object

Animating the inanimate isn't called for very often, unless you enter the field of fantasy writing or film making. Otherwise, the most likely objects to become animate are robots, belonging mostly to the field of science fiction. In literature computers or computer panels may 'talk' using recorded messages but rarely are they given any particular sentience of their own by which they can communicate.

Just like humans and many animals, there is a variety of communication methods available to the animated object. When a writer assigns some degree of personality or intelligence to an object they usually have to choose a method of communication that best suits the object's form, the personality type and the level of intelligence.

So, for choosing a methods by which an inanimate object communicate here is a list of those available and their pros and cons

Basic body language
Jiggling, shaking, rotating, bending, squashing the 'body', bouncing, rolling etc.
Pros: Emotions are conveyed extremely well.
Cons: Thoughts require some interpretation and sympathetic understanding on the part of the viewer.

The object has knowledge of the human language and body language so it can use body language that is understandable, such as: nodding, shaking a 'head', pointing, waving etc.
Pros: Emotions are conveyed extremely well while thoughts are conveyed with a little patience on the part of the viewer.
Cons: Scenes can become lengthy and boring if the message being conveyed is anything but simple.

Flashing lights, colour and/or shape changes
The object typically expands and contracts at will and can change colour to signify emotions. The colours chosen usually coincide with our understanding of colour meanings, eg. red is alarm or stop. It is rarer for objects to have their own colour coding which requires a degree of reader or viewer engagement to decipher.
Pros: Emotions are conveyed well.
Cons: Thoughts require some interpretation and sympathetic understanding on the part of the viewer.

Jibbering and nonsensical sounds
The sounds produced aren't language so much as a form of emphasis, urgency or indication.  An object without any other form of communication would find this about as useful as a human without any other form of communication. This is why it is usually paired with some degree of body language so that a point can be made.
Pros: Believable for objects of low intelligence, no human language etc. 
Cons: Almost requires some body language to be understood. Without body language it is  a level of communication on par with hot/cold or Marco/Polo.

This can be disjointed words through to full sentences and complete arguments or instructions.
Pros: Everyone understands immediately (within those who understand the language the piece is written or shown in) and emotions are conveyed easily through tonal inflections.
Cons: There is little mystery or appeal to the animated object, reducing the audience's connection with the object. Personality faults etc can make up for this though.

Writing in code
This is often used when alien Al meets human but there are other instances involving different human languages and mathematical codes.
Pros: Gives a level of authenticity to a story about communicating or defending secrets and also to culture clashes.
Cons: Communication and interpretation can be slow unless there are subtitles or a translator present. The slow rate of message conveyance can be used as a point of suspense but often just annoys and believable suspense that isn't just frustrating is difficult to create.

The object shows a message in writing. This method of communication often appears in stories of AI computers incapable of easy movement.
Pros: Easily understandable.
Cons: Emotions aren't easily conveyed unless there's a use of flashing lights, which works to compensate for a lack of body language or inflection.

The use of Sign language can only be included if the object has what can be interpreted as hands and arms. Given that humans continually make objects that resemble the human form in many ways this method of communication could be a common feature. Just consider how many statues are out there. They don't have vocal cords but they do have arms and hands.
Pros: The object can appear highly intelligent and capable. Sign is a sophisticated form of body language so other body language capabilities should be available to the object.

Cons: Only those fluent in sign are able to understand what is being communicated without explanation. Subtitles, explanations or footnotes will be required to reach a wider audience.

When choosing a method of communication many of the problems can be avoided by giving the animated object a great skill in one communication method and a mild one in another so that objects can have some talking and body language skills at once, for example.

It is also worth noting that the pros and cons of each method of communication may change or be added to depending on the object being animated. Sometimes the methods of communication that should be used are obvious while in other cases some thought must go into creating a personality, complete with mannerisms and communication methods, that matches the object and its role in the story.

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