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In Focus: Put Your Best Face Forward

Sean P. Egen
In Focus: Put Your Best Face Forward Sean P. Egen
In the B-B-B-Beginning

It's 1985, and after years of watching Pepsi's market share steadily rise while theirs remains flat, the Coca-Cola Company decides to answer the "Pepsi Challenge" with the introduction of "New" Coke. Leading the charge in the cola wars for New Coke is a stuttering, computer-generated spokesman named Max Headroom. He delivers edgy, staccato catch phrases like "C-c-c-catch the wave!" and "Don't say the P-word!" on millions of television screens across America. In reality, the fast-talking spokesman is not a product of virtual reality, but an actor in makeup, the illusion of 3D rendering pulled off with the help of simplistic, animated backgrounds and choppy, MTV-style editing to compensate for 1980's technology that hasn't yet caught up with Headroom's supposed time on earth: "Twenty minutes into the future."     


ESPN digitizes familiar sports figures and brings them to life at SportsNation.

Although the launch of New Coke ultimately fails and represents one of the greatest marketing blunders in recent history, the use of Headroom as a pitchman stands as one of the first instances of a virtual-reality character (albeit a faux one), or "avatar," promoting a major brand. And while the notion of a computer-generated spokesperson may've seemed pretty "out there" in the mid-eighties, today avatars are being utilized by many companies that recognize the benefits of putting a face to their online branding, messaging and training. And the range of avatar applications is nearly as diverse as the businesses using them and the animated characters they're using.  

Here are just three of them from some of the leading avatar suppliers: 

Using avatars to promote your brand with a friendly face

When you land on the Internal Revenue Service's efile home page, you might think you're at the wrong URL at first. There's no bureaucratic look or feel. No cold, unfriendly, complicated tax-code verbiage. Just a pleasant graphic interface and a friendly talking Veeper from Pulse Entertainment to walk you through the site. Described by San Francisco based Pulse as "Rich media with personality," these photo-realistic Veepers, or interactive virtual 3-D personalities, look and act like streaming video, but are only a fraction of the cost and use about 1 percent of the file size. And they can be created in only a few minutes from a single two-dimensional image.

The result is a website where customers are greeted warmly and instantly put at ease with friendly, realistic-looking human characters. A big selling point considering the site belongs to the IRS, an acronym that instantly strikes fear in the hearts of many Americans at its mere mention. But there's nothing scary here. Choose how you're going to file --Myself, My Business, My Clients -- and you're immediately greeted by another friendly, non-threatening Veeper who will walk you through the selling points of filing your taxes online. It's a cost-effective, engaging way for the IRS to promote its product, overcome user trepidations, and build brand awareness. So you'll use their product and come back next year at tax time. 

Veepers and other types of talking avatars are being put to work by savvy marketers to provide immediate face-to-face contact with their online customers, something previously lacking in the world of online marketing. They greet and welcome customers, walk them through the website, answer FAQs, provide personalized consultations and sometimes even serve as the product itself, as is the case at AmericanGreetings.com, another Pulse client. Here, e-cards featuring talking Veepers can be sent with any message you enter -- even with your own uploadable voice.               

Using avatars to promote your brand with a famous face   

ESPN has some of the most recognizable on-air talent in the world of sports broadcasting. So when ESPN.com was looking to create new content for their site, they approached New York based Oddcast, Inc. with the notion of marrying previously produced audio from their television and radio broadcasts with animated ESPN broadcasters. The two fit together like Jordan and Pippen in the Bulls' backcourt.

The results can be seen on ESPN.com's aggressive site, SportsNation, where sports fans can find animated avatars of many of ESPN's popular on-air personalities discussing hot sports topics. The re-purposed audio is run under an animated Oddcast VHost character of the original broadcaster. Like ESPN analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay's avatar talking about how the San Antonio spurs are in the driver's seat after their overtime victory in game five of the NBA Finals. Along with re-purposed content, the site also features some original content. Every morning, ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff produces a thirty-second version of his "Daily Quickie," delivered by his avatar alter ego.          

"I was familiar with some of the work that they had done," says John Papanek, Senior Vice President and Editorial Director of ESPN New Media, of Oddcast, "and we thought the use of Oddcast VHosts would be an effective way for us to capitalize on the huge amount of fan interest and passion of fans on our site, and also to be able to marry audio that we produce at ESPN with characters that we could very easily present and manipulate."

Just how many fans? While ESPN.com doesn't release traffic statistics for individual areas of their site, Papanek says the numbers they have are "impressive." And avatars of the on-air-talent variety aren't the only ones helping to pull fans in.  SportsNation also features an application called "Voice of the Fan," where fans are asked to comment on ever-changing sports topics. (The topic as of this writing is the NBA finals, delivered by none other than an "avatarred" Dr. J.)  Fans can create their own talking avatar, type a message or upload their own voice, then post their audio-visual responses on message boards and email them to friends. Some of the better responses even get played on ESPN's SportsCenter. 

So, with such a positive reaction, are there plans for ESPN.com to increase the roles of avatars? "Absolutely," says Papanek. "I think you'll see much, much more elaborate, much more realistic kinds of avatars representing users who are much more comfortable existing in cyberspace. I think we're only at the beginning of this."

Using avatars to promote the right face on your employees 

While computer-generated avatars are great for putting a face on your firm's online activities, ultimately business comes down to person-to-person interaction, both in relations with customers and of the employee-to-employee kind. Believe it or not, avatars are having an impact here, too. They're being used by many companies in "virtual training worlds" (VTWs) to help train everyone from salespeople to customer service representatives to upper-level management. So companies can be sure their employees are getting the tools they need to put their best face forward with customers, and each other, in everyday work situations. Think of them as high-tech video games designed to optimize employee performance.

Using avatars and VTWs allows companies to get the best of both worlds of computer-based learning and face-to-face training. It can be cheaper, more consistent, and a lot more available since it doesn't necessarily have to be packed into a specified training period, like costly offsite training seminars. A virtual world can simulate just about any business or workplace environment, and it doesn't have to leave out the human element, either. VTWs can utilize the expertise of live trainers, who can be onsite or offsite, in real time. They interact through avatars in the virtual world via text messaging or telephone conversations. This allows for repeated reinforcement. And not just virtual reinforcement, either, but the human kind, as well -- an important element often overlooked in computer-based training.

Two companies leading the way in training with avatars are Accenture Ltd. of Bermuda and Connecticut based SimuLearn, both specializing in corporate training applications.  But avatars are being used in education outside the boardroom, too. Both Oddcast and Pulse avatars can be found doing their parts for education on the net -- Oddcast on English-learning sites like Speak2me.net and GoodMorningHeidi.com, and Pulse with its "virtual patient" for Harvard's Medical School. Avatars and VTWs are even being used for military training applications by firms like Planet 9 Studios.

Cons with conversational avatars?

So they're cost-effective, friendly, engaging, and use smaller file sizes than many other multi-media options, but are there any downsides to using avatars to promote your brand? According to Adi Sideman, CEO and Founder of Oddcast, there can be.

"From time to time," says Sideman, "site editors are concerned that the avatar may annoy a visitor if it repeats the same dialogue again and again." Sideman offers these pieces of advice to address their concerns:

• Always have a mute button available for customers to hit
• Implement progressive messaging so repeat visitors hear a different message every time they come back to your site
• Update the avatar messaging often and make sure it's relevant and current.
"Just like every innovation, there are those who resist," Sideman adds. "For every ten people who write us to praise the technology, there is one that says it's annoying to have a virtual person speak to you."
This resistance apparently applies to avatar training, too. As Jeanette Borzo reported in a recent Wall Street Journal Online article on the use of avatars in corporate training: "For businesses that haven't yet warmed to any form of computer-based learning, the use of avatars can seem far-fetched. And even those companies that successfully use avatar trainers have met with some reluctance as employees experience something like future shock over the notion of being taught by avatars."

Photo-realism or illustrated?

Once a decision is made to utilize the services of an avatar, how does a company decide which style to use: the photo-realistic route or the illustrated one?  There are currently two schools of thought.

The photo-realism school would argue that an avatar with a more realistic rendering puts people more at ease, since the avatar looks and feels more like a real person, and people are used to having conversations with "real" people.  Most people, anyway.  Then there's the school of thought that says (citing the "Uncanny Valley" principle of robotics) that a more realistic-looking avatar doesn't necessarily equate with a higher level of user acceptance or comfort.

According to Adi Sideman of Oddcast, which offers both styles, Uncanny Valley theory basically boils down to this: "As avatars are not perfect, and never will be, when you use a photo-realistic avatar, the disappointment level is generally greater than when you use an illustration, declaring in advance that you're not trying to mimic real life." 

Which style a client chooses boils down to applications, budget, recommendations, goals, corporate culture, and, ultimately, personal tastes.    

Standing out in a sea of faces

Since avatars are hot and, no doubt, only going to get hotter, will there be such a thing as avatar overload? Pulse Entertainment's own Veeper spokesperson claims that "associating your brand with a fun and engaging online experience that consumers will remember" is one of the pressing problems their Veeper avatars will resolve for online marketers.  And Oddcast.com promotes customer success stories using their VHost avatars. But, as more and more avatars appear on websites, will avatars still be quite so effective or unique?  Or will they become as ubiquitous, and as often ignored, as many of the ad banners and pop-ups currently on the internet? 

Only time will tell. But one thing seems certain -- as the use of avatars grows, so too will the need for providers of these virtual-reality spokespeople to find more and more innovative ways to make their products somehow stand out. 

And, perhaps even more importantly, to convince their clients that the proprietary avatar version they're peddling will do exactly that. 


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