Novelty or business tool?

Computer World –

The novelty of having a digital human read your e-mail aloud will attract Facemail's first users, but its effectiveness as a business tool will retain users, say spokesmen for LifeFX.

The company last month released its first commercial product, Facemail, which lets users select one of five stand-ins, as LifeFX calls its digital avatars, to deliver their e-mail.

LifeFX is negotiating with two Fortune 100 companies to license the 3-D talking heads for use on their Web sites, says Lucie Salhany, CEO and co-president of LifeFX.

"Shopping-cart abandonment is a big problem," she says. "Supposing there's someone to help you through the process, or even to say, 'Are you sure you don't want to buy this?' "

Perhaps, says Jackie Fenn, an analyst at Gartner Group. "But if you're at work and you're busily buying a sweater online, you may not want someone on your screen announcing it," Fenn says.

And although Facemail's inflection and visual cues may cut down on misunderstandings engendered by e-mail, as LifeFX claims, "it may prove disruptive in an office full of cubicles," according to Fenn.

But e-mail is only the beginning, says Mark Sagar, vice president of research and development at LifeFX. By linking the visual technology to artificial intelligence and an English discourse engine, a lifelike digital human can interact with users.

"Think of a HAL-like creature," Sagar says, referring to the computer in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"It's a natural for telemarketing, call centers, help desks, any repetitive tasks," Sagar says.

It can also cut costs, adds Salhany. "The average customer service call costs $25 to $33 per incident. Think of the savings if you can automate that," she says.

Much of what its avatars can do can also be done "in text, but it's cold," Salhany says.

"The biggest difference [the technology offers] is in adding sound," Fenn says. But in "online retail, for a help desk, it could work. People react differently when a machine is humanized. Look at speech recognition -- people start saying please and thank you, and they know they're talking to a machine."

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