Digital Humans Are Here to Serve You
“These changes ain’t changing me/ The cold-hearted boy I used to be” —The Killers (“All These Things That I’ve Done”)
DON’T WE ALL LOVE stories of a curmudgeon whose cold, callous, dark heart was melted by some external force such as an adorable waif, a rambunctious pet, or a Chet Baker tune wafting ghostly in on the breeze? Clint Eastwood would not have had his late-stage film career without that trope. Well, I’m not really a curmudgeon, but when it came to a specific technology, I was at least a vigorous skeptic. And my heart hasn’t really been liquefied, more softened a bit like a block of cheddar cheese left on the counter for an hour. So other than those differences, my story is just like Clint’s in the film Gran Torino.
To what was I having such a stony reaction? Avatars used for customer service.
Animated avatars built on top of chatbots are nothing new. More than 14 years ago, an Italian payments firm launched a spiky-haired virtual assistant. The animation, while cute in a low-fi punky way, looks rough by today’s standards. When I first saw avatars back in the day, I thought, “Cute toys, but creepy and no one wants a talking cartoon to replace real human connection.” But that was then; we’re in a whole new world today.
The concept of adding some flair to a conversational assistant has taken on a new urgency. “What if your brand had a face and a voice and a personality?” reads a recent marketing email from the vendor Uneeq. With the marriage of tools, techniques, and even talent from entertainment’s CGI revolution, the quality of the avatars has markedly improved—so much, in fact, that we no longer think of them as avatars, but rather as “digital humans.” We are getting close to photorealistic graphics and, yes, the uncanny valley, too.
These advancements have changed the key question businesses need to ask about the technology. It is no longer a case of “Can we?” but rather “Why should we?” My old answer would have been a snarky version of “Ain’t no reason to.” But again, that was then. There are a few key reasons, besides the improved animation, why the next few years might be a good time to start experimenting with digital humans.
First, it seems that I am not the typical consumer. While I have no use for an animated assistant, consumers seem to want to get up close and personal with chatbots. To date, most chatbot experiences have focused more on getting the right answer to consumers than to providing an extension of the brand. Consumers don’t seem to love that approach: Only about one-third of consumers want a “Just the facts, ma’am” type of chatbot. The rest want some pizzazz and personality. As the marketing message mentioned above hints, digital humans provide companies the opportunity to infuse some individuality into self-service experiences. Much of our personality is expressed nonverbally, so adding facial expressions to the chatbots might give consumers the experience they want.
Second, the technology landscape has shifted and businesses can now split the beauty and the brains of their chatbots into two pieces. Some of the leading conversational AI vendors spent years developing animated avatar experiences alongside their conversational dialogue design and natural language understanding tools. The results? Meh. But now, digital human specialists, often staffed with veterans of film effects studios, have cropped up. This lets the conversational AI vendors focus on “the brains” of conversational AI, while leaving the graphical and psychological work to the experts. Companies will soon be able to choose a best-of-breed approach, giving them greater control over their digital-human experience.
So while I may never fully come around to the need to get customer service from an animated talking head, this curmudgeonly analyst has taken his first step toward conversion.
Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.