By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
Virtual pets are hot this year. The craze started in Japan, where living space can be too restrictive for real pets. Now you can have a virtual pet of your own, at no cost, right on your screen.
The pet is Mopy Fish. It's a Windows 95 screensaver in which an astonishingly lifelike goldfish swims around your screen, looking for companionship and, of course, an occasional pinch of fish food.
The fish is utterly realistic in the way it darts about, and it acts just like any of the goldfish I've owned in its jittery mannerisms when you get too close. If you forget to feed it, Mopy turns glum, and if you neglect it for more than a few weeks, the fish goes belly-up and floats to the top of your screen. (A few coaxing clicks and a dash of fish food will bring Mopy back to life.)
Mopy Fish is available as a free download on the Web at http://www.globalbeach.com/new/gofish.html. The download file is about 1.4 megabytes, so it should not take long to receive.
Global Beach, a British company specializing in the creation of artificial life through software, created Mopy Fish as a public-relations stunt for the German branch of Hewlett Packard. Gimmick or not, the little goldfish is one of the cleverest toys I've ever seen. And it surely is the most brilliant adaptation of artificial intelligence you can find without spending a cent.
Mopy is an animation, as you might guess. But unlike nearly all other animations you can play on your PC, which are composed of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of separate frames, the animation that gives Mopy such striking realism was created from 1 million color photographs of a goldfish. These individual photos were then analyzed by a high-speed computer to discern the almost imperceptible patterns of gestures and slight movements that a goldfish makes.
The analysis was then coded into the artificial intelligence program that governs the behavior of Mopy on your screen. The result is simply unnerving if you are accustomed to ordinary animations. Like any real fish—and unlike any animations you've ever seen—Mopy swims and cavorts in endless realism, never repeating any of its behavior patterns in exactly the same way, always reacting in subtle variations to your mouse movements.
Until now, artificial intelligence has been treated like life on Mars—you hear about it, wonder if it's true, and know you'll never get a chance to see what it's like. Mopy Fish changes all that. It lets anyone with a Windows 95 PC live and play with a virtual pet that behaves like a real animal in countless ways.
But Mopy also suggests that the future of home entertainment is about to take a dramatic turn. If a million photos of an animal can be analyzed into a lifelike goldfish on your screen, what could a billion photos of the cast of Hamlet be turned into? What could a trillion pictures of a bustling city be synthesized to show?
What could artificial intelligence far more powerful than the mind of Mopy the Goldfish do if it were combined with holograms and superfast computers?
I have more questions, dozens more. But I have no answers. No one does. We'll just have to greet the future when it comes. While you're waiting, don't forget to feed the fish.
After this article was published, I received the following letter:
I just wanted to draw your attention to an error in this week's "Inside the Internet" column about Mopy pet.
If the photograph which accompanies the story is an actual photo of "Mopy pet" I feel compelled to inform you that he is not, as you mentioned several times in your article, a goldfish, but is actually a member of the Cichlid (pronounced sick-lid) family called a "Bloody Parrot". Cichlids inhabit the warm rivers and lakes of South America and Africa.
This particular cichlid is actually a cross-breed between a Gold Severum (Heros Severus) and a Red Devil (Chichlasoma Citrinellum). Although severums tend to be pretty docile, Red Devils are very agressive. The combination of the two produces an moderately aggressive carnivore which, in fact, relishes the opportunity to dine on common goldfish. A full-grown Bloody Parrot will reach 5-8" in length.
Common goldfish, on the other hand, are of an entirely different family of cold-water fish (Carassius auratus- a close relative of the Cyprinus carpio which live in Onondaga Lake), with severely different characteristics from those of the Cichlid family. Even the most strange-looking specialty breed of goldfish cannot be mistaken for a cichlid when compared side by side. Nor can they thrive in the same environment.
All that said, I must admit I've never owned a Bloody Parrot, although I've thought about it. My situation is not likely to change even with the availability of Mopy pet for Windows 95; I am a diehard Mac loyalist since my conversion almost two years ago by my friends Trey and Chris.
Than again, maybe I can convert my old Packard Bell monitor into a fish tank...
Just a helpful guy,