With the advent of voice assistants like Siri, we’re talking to our computers more than ever. But Siri, Google Now, and their contemporaries only go so far. One Seattle-based startup thinks that when you’re interacting with a digital character in the future, you’ll be talking to an animated virtual avatar driven by their software.
“Up to this point, computers have been pretty boring, and you have to type, and you have to swipe and do all these things that are very unnatural,” said Bo Pintea, one of Xprevo’s co-founders. “And as we discovered, even in my previous companies with videoconferencing, if you’re not providing some sort of visual cues, and if you’re not providing socially appropriate cues to the other party, the value of communication and the value of interaction decreases rapidly.”
The 16-month-old Seattle company plans to build virtual entities that can provide those clues. Xprevo’s website sums its mission up best: “100% genuine artificial humans: voice, body, mind, everything.” As a first step, they’ve created Jeannie, an artificial personality that lives in your phone.
Jeannie is a collaboration between Xprevo and Pannous GmbH, the company behind the Voice Actions app for Android and iOS, and combines the Siri-like features of Voice Actions with an animated face.
“Giving the computer a face is a profound step to humanizing it,” explains Pintea, a former Microsoft program manager. “Not only does this deepen the emotional computer/human bond, it also speeds communication. Faces transmit information more instantly and instinctively that any verbal or textual method. So far, the computer has vastly increased the width of our social networks and the breadth our access to data. The inclusion of emotional communication will allow computers to increase the depth of our experience as well.”
Because of that, Xprevo is very quick to avoid comparisons with Siri, saying that the two voice assistants are working at different purposes.
“It’s not in (Siri’s) intent to conduct a conversation. For our users, 85 percent of the exchanges happen in the context of dialogue. Because what users are craving is not necessarily functionality, you know, (like) where is the next sandwich shop, they can get that from Siri, and we don’t want to tread on that territory.”
Judging by the app’s performance, it’s fairly clear that Jeannie isn’t designed to compete with Siri. But where Xprevo’s app shines is in conversation with the user. According to Pintea, Jeannie takes into account everything you say in conversation to become a better speaking partner.
“The more a user converses, the more information it accumulates about the user, and the better it serves the user,” he said.
According to Chris Shaw, Xprevo’s other founder, the technology backing Jeannie is the start of a revolution. To hear Shaw tell it, we are at a nexus of technological advancements that will lead to leaps forward in the way people interact with digital content.
“We are at a threshold of another (relatively significant moment in human history), and that is where 3D interactive takes on full dramatic content,” Shaw said. “What that means is that games are things that can make you cry. They can make you laugh, they can make you think. Yesterday’s (non-player character) becomes a full-blown dramatic character that moves you to the core.”
At this point, Jeannie is more of a technology showcase. The ultimate goal for Xprevo is to help online businesses conduct better conversations with customers, bringing back “the human element” through avatars.
“eCommerce requires a dynamic synergy between usability, persuasion and branding,” says Pintea. “We can help businesses create a new communications channel with customers: sales avatars, travel agents, bank tellers, brand spokespersons, all living on your smartphone.”
The people at Xprevo, which has 10 employees spread between the HUB in Seattle as well as Romania and Germany, clearly think they have the keys to the future.
Blair Hanley Frank is a technology journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has also worked for Macworld, PCWorld and TechHive. He can be found on Twitter @belril.