Who needs emoticons? British researchers just unveiled a digital talking head with a controllable emotional level that you can use to send custom video messages.

Humans still struggle to communicate effectively with computers because, well, computers do lack subtlety. So researchers from the University of Cambridge and Toshiba’s Cambridge Research Laboratory collaborated to create “Zoe,” a digital floating head that they think has a more realistic way of expressing emotion.

Mist Screen Acts Like Touchable Hologram

“A lot of communication between people is nonverbal — and between people and machines, it’s not like that at all,” noted Björn Stenger, a member of Toshiba’s Cambridge Research Laboratory who collaborated on the system in a video.

Sample sentences in different emotions were read by British actress Zoë Lister (not to be confused with the American actress Zoe Lister Jones). Then the researchers trained their model using that data. They also created a mesh structure under the virtual head that can be controlled manually if needed. It’s frightening looking.

Currently Zoe can read a message you type in, and do it with the amount of emotion you want on a sliding scale: anger, sadness, happiness, tenderness, fearfulness. She can also strike a neutral bot-like tone. The researchers then create a video of Zoe saying the message with that emotion.

“Soon I will be interactive, 3D, and be able to adapt to your needs,” Zoe says in this video. ”One day I might appear on your phone, I could be your personal assistant, your mentor, or your carer.”

Holographic Princess Leia Nears Reality

Next the researchers want to extend their model so it could be customized to show someone else based on photos and a few seconds of that person speaking. Sounds cool but also potentially pretty risky. Imagine merging Siri with Zoe and you’d either have a helpful tool or an apocalyptic sci-fi movie.

Photo: A video showing Zoe communicating. Credit: The University of Cambridge (video)