The future of avatars

Rebang speculates about the future of avatars. Hes starting to convince me.

Rebang says: “I figure Human Resource information will eventually be tagged to avatars used inside corporate simulations; and those avatars will be passed among companies (e.g. employer to insurance company to…). At some point I suspect public and corporate avatars will merge, meaning that our avatars would become important and sensitive information containers.”

I can see that large companies could use avatars for internal sales and training – eg the head of HR could listen personally to your complaints and problems, or complex forms could be livened up by making them into an interactive conversation with an agent that had the face of a colleague. Current e-learning packages might be livened up by giving them a known face. I see that SitePal is still going, though its agent technology still isnt convincing. (I mistakenly typed in God morning and the avatar replied “There are many Gods. The main monotheistic religions, that is they have a single God, are Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”)

But all new technology looks creaky and silly when you start it off. I remember a few years ago being totally unable to see the point of blogs. Now I find myself thinking that Id like to personalise this blog with an avatar – though of course with the present technology it wouldnt be my persona out there.

Surely theres a commercial opportunity out there for a build your own avatar package: some conflation of virtual rendering plus text to speech plus basic agent technology, with a few starter templates, for a once-only price that would cost less that $15 per month for the rest of your virtual life?

It has to build its visual appearance from actual photographs of you, and its voice from recordings of yours. The agent engine has to be easily customisable. It also has to learn you – this is where Rebang gets excited – and to hold basic data about you. This can be anything from your medical history and credit card number, down to your favourite ice-cream flavour – so that it will respond authentically. And it has to be standalone, meaning that you can put it on any web page, on your own ordinary server running Linux. And it must load promptly. It should respond to typed queries and possibly voice ones. It should not need to be inside a virtual world (eg 2nd life) to function.

The trouble is the amount of attention humans can give is limited. Unless we go for the nightmare world in which my avatar talks mechanically to Rebangs avatar, whilst both of us are doing something else entirely – a sort of more elaborate XMLRPC – otherwise, someone human has to take the time to listen to/ view my avatar. It would be more human than reading my email, and more persuasive if Jon Gratch has his way.

But in theory you can already have a video chat with me over Skype. (I say in theory because it sometimes crashes my system, so Ive taken the camera off.) The only difference between this and chatting to my avatar is that Im saying I want your attention but I havent got time to give you mine.” Hmm, yes, should catch on in the advertising/ sales/ government/ porn industries.

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