Giving a Face to Digital Virtual Assistants – Avatars of the Future

AvatarIn my last few posts, I’ve delved into each of the five categories of key virtual assistant components that were outlined in the VisionMobile report Beyond Siri: Breaking Down the Virtual Assistant Market. This post takes a look at the physical presentation of the virtual agent. While many of the current mobile personal assistants do not display avatars, the majority of virtual assistants on corporate websites or online retail sites do have a physical presence. Avatar technology is still immature. Even the best avatars tend to look cartoonish and waxen.

There’s little doubt, though, that companies will continue to work on improving avatar technologies. Virtual agents of the future will more closely mimic real humans until one day, it will be difficult to distinguish between agent and human.

Amy L. Baylor, a Professor at Florida State University, has researched and written about using avatars in conjunction with virtual agents. Her work has found that the virtual presence and appearance of avatars can have a dramatic impact on how a user relates to virtual agents, or other conversational digital assistants. In her paper Promoting motivation with virtual agents and avatars: role of visual presence and appearance, Baylor describes research showing that users relate better to agents that appear like people within their own peer group. Younger users feel comfortable, and even willing to take advice, from virtual agent avatars that appear to be “cool” members of their own clique. Physical age, hair style, and attire are all important factors. These findings may influence how enterprise and customer support agents are designed.

In a recent article on, author Emma Hutchings describes work being performed at Toshiba’s Cambridge Research Lab on avatar technology. This is an example of important advances being made in generating more lifelike avatars that users can connect with. The Research Lab devised a collaboration between speech and vision groups to create a digital avatar that can rotate its head, blink, move its lips, while displaying a repertoire of realistic emotions. In order to develop their avatar model, the team recorded the facial expressions of an actress and then mapped them to basic emotions such as anger, happiness, and sadness on a digital 3D head. See the interesting results for yourself in the talking head video.

Avatars are here and they’re the user interface of the future.

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