Spurred on by its youthful billionaire creator Bill Gates, Microsoft is on a fevered mission to possess the future of animation. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is busy raiding Bay Area animation studios for personnel, assembling a cutting-edge toolkit and constructing the lineaments of futuristic interactive media that will serve up, and be served by, the animation artists’ talents.

At the center of Gates’ vision is the “social interface,” a concept developed by Stanford University professors Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves.

The theory, as Nass explained it in a meeting with Gates, is that people respond socially to the computer, as if it were a character, and that to succeed with users, computers must follow social rules. Nass says that Gates responded, “You mean, I care whether that character likes me or not?”

Now Gates is hot to make computer-driven interactive programs user-friendly by endowing them with personality. How? By replacing the ghost in the machine with an amiable cartoon character or “animated agents” who will reply to questions, offer instructions and-ultimately-execute vocally ordered tasks.

Accomplishing that goal is a high priority for Gates, whose Microsoft Home division already turns out consumer products such as CD-ROM games and kids’ edutainment titles to the tune of $500 million a year.

Microsoft’s acquisition this year of Montreal-based Softimage was a crucial step. Before becoming part of Gates’ empire, Softimage was doing $25 million in yearly sales of its cutting edge animation software tools.

Softimage’s Creative Toonzcel animation system is being employed at Amblimation Studios to create the film “Balto.”

Gates may run into problems, however, as he tries to gather the talent to wield his sophisticated toolkit.

Pam Kerwin, head of the tech division at Pixar Studios-where half the 150-member staff is at work on the computer generated feature “Toy Story” for Disney-says Microsoft isn’t viewed “as a creative place.” She says animation students at CalArts, for instance, generally would have Disney or Pixar or Colossal Pictures at the head of their employment wishlist, rather than Microsoft.

Yet animators at Colossal in San Francisco report that Microsoft has rummaged around for personnel. Animator Heather Selick said several people she knows have been approached by Microsoft headhunters, though most declined.

But one assistant animator, said Selick, was lured away by the Seattle-based software giant, attracted by promises of full animator status and lots of cool computer stuff. A Pixar systems specialist also headed north. Bay Area folks say that Seattle itself is a magnet for artists seeking a groovier lifestyle.

In the end, however, Microsoft’s entry into interactive services may change the picture. Its recently announced alliance with Tele-Communications Inc., and its own online service built into Microsoft’s new Windows95 operating program later this year, may be likened to the time when Hollywood studios owned theater chains and could guarantee hundreds of screens for its films.

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