In the summer of 2009, IBM approached us to create a visual representation of their newly developed natural language processing machine, named Watson. IBM’s goal was to compete against real humans on the deceptively complex gameshow Jeopardy and, simply put, they needed a personality for their computer. Over the course of two years, I was part of the core team that developed the Watson Avatar – a living, breathing representation of the machine that would go on to compete on Jeopardy.
We built a massive "states chart" to map out of all the various actions that a player takes over the course of an episode of Jeopardy. The chart used color, speed, and shape to convey ideas of data, intelligence, and even emotion.
art meets code
We brought on pioneering generative artist Joshua Davis to breath life into code. I collaborated with him to apply the colors and motion devised in the states chart to a live XML feed that ran from the Watson servers to our installation on stage. The code interpreted game states, confidence levels, and answers as colors, shapes, and speed.
On Stage with the Best
Connected to a live feed from the actual Watson computers, the Watson Avatar stood behind the podium between the two best Jeopardy players in the world: Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
extending the story
In addition to designing the Avatar, we created a multi-part documentary series called 'What is Watson?' that educated people about the science and the people behind Watson. The videos lived online and also ran during the Jeopardy broadcast.
This film introduced us to the IBM researchers working on Watson and some of the challenges they had to overcome.
Here we went over the complexities of designing an avatar for a room full of servers.
In the final days before the match, we followed the Watson researchers as they prepped for the big day.
Our last film discussed the science of the match and what IBM sees for the future of Watson.
Bringing it all Together
People loved Watson. The general public began to root for the machine, friendly parodies of Watson began to pop up on late night shows and on the web. The avatar is still in use today as the face of the Watson supercomputer as it goes on to solve real world problems for IBM.