Putting Virtual Humans to Work

SAN FRANCISCO — BT Exact, the research and development division of British Telecommunications PLC Tuesday said it has licensed Pulse’s “Veepers” technology to create applications using interactive 3D characters.

The partnership announced at the AD:TECH 2003 conference here this week is expected to help spice up the marketing and customer services sector with personalized rich media content.

Veepers are the brainchild of San Francisco-based Pulse. The 3D interactive characters can be generated from photos or illustrations and programmed to move and speak. Pulse claims its technology is a fast and less expensive alternative to streaming video. The content can quickly be altered using simple proprietary tools, with file sizes as little as 1/100th the size of a similar digital video file. With the recent release of version 3.0, Veepers now includes Java support, so no plug-in is required.

The technology is in use by online personals provider Match.com and London-based financial services organization Newcastle Building Society. Customers typically pay Pulse a standard one-time license fee for perpetual use. The company also announced Tuesday that it had created a services division to build virtual characters and script interactions that address specific business goals.

Marketing is a growth area for Pulse, said senior vice president of worldwide sales and services Ed Manning. “When buying products online or getting online customer support, people really want to interact with other people. It’s much nicer to have personality guide you through the process.”

Byron Reeves, a Stanford University professor who consults with Pulse, says that virtual characters such as Pulse’s can help or harm online interactions.

“The very nature of the interaction with computers – such things as taking turns, responses that are contingent on the human’s actions — mimics human relationships in a way that causes us to respond to them like a person.”

Virtual characters can turn up what Reeves calls the “social volume,” making the interaction seem even more personal. His studies at Stanford’s Research center for the study of language and information, where he’s the director, found that users were more likely to disclose personal information in an interaction with a virtual character than when filling out a text box.

But there’s also a downside to this personalization of the computer.

“If the virtual character is used poorly, the response can be even worse than if you hadn’t used it,” Reeves told internetnews.com.

Pulse says its new consulting division will ensure that its customers’ Veepers aren’t a turn-off. The advantage of Pulse’s simplified technology, Reeves says, is that “it makes it very easy to put a little spice and social volume into online customer relationships. ”

British Telecom is in the middle of changing over its Openworld broadband content brand to Yahoo . Whether or not Veepers will make it into any of Yahoo’s apps remains to be seen.

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