Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Animated Talking Characters: The Marketing Of Social Intelligence Online

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Animated talking characters are visual animated characters that can "voice" predefined sentences and which can be easily embedded in just about any web add visual impact, and, in some cases, a more human touch.

TalkingHeadz latest examples of animated talking heads

"Research about interactive characters suggests substantial opportunities for them to enhance online experiences.

Animated talking characters take advantage of social responses that are natural reactions to interactive media. They can be perceived as realistic and well- liked social partners in conversations that simulate real-world interactions.

Talking characters can express social roles, emotions, and organized personalities that match learning goals, company brands, and transaction needs.

Animated talking characters can increase the trust that users place in online experiences, in part because they make online experiences easier."
(Source: The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters - Byron Reeves - Center for the Study of Language and Information Stanford University)

Animated talking characters can be utilized for a large number of applications including:

Online Sales - animated talking characters can significantly help to reduce order abandonment, to easily understand the options available to them and to find the right steps to take to complete their order.

Online Customer Support - animated talking characters can deliver customer support 24 hours a day, while being able to quickly direct your customers to the specific information they need - saving money and resources.

Online Training - animated talking characters can help train professionals on the use of new online services, software tools by guiding leading users through diagnostic and troubleshooting processes

Online Marketing - providing interactive product awareness for marketing these services.

"Research shows that over 90% of people can find a character in interactive sessions that they prefer over no character at all.

It takes only five choices to provide a character that is liked. But even when a single character is presented, only 15% of users dislike the character and those people can usually be accommodated by allowing them to opt out of character interactions in favor of other forms of navigation.

Characters have also been shown to sustain liking across sessions (up to six months in length), making them appropriate for relationships that persist over time; for example, in the case of an instructional character giving lessons over multiple sessions. It is also important to note that a large majority of all users like characters; characters are not just for children and novices."

(Source: The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters - Byron Reeves - Center for the Study of Language and Information Stanford University)

The reason why animated talking characters may be important marketing and communication tools in virtual environments is due to the fact that all human-media interactions are fundamentally social. Whether we like to see this or not, Professor Reeves at the Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information has spent some serious time researching this over the arch of many years and what he writes in his recent report on "The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters" (PDF - 11 pages) is quite fascinating:

Character Interfaces Bring Social Intelligence to Online Interactions

"Social competence is critical for success in teaching, commerce and interpersonal relations. This is a well-documented fact in education, business and psychology.

Social intelligence - in the form of facial and emotional expressions, gestures, and speech and language abilities - is the essence of personalized and effective communication.

Social intelligence determines engagement, attention, learning, persistence in relationships, and subjective evaluations of experience.

The same social competencies that facilitate human-human interaction also determine the success of human-media interactions. A significant body of research shows that when people interact with media - and especially with computer-based media that are interactive - the social intelligence of presentations is critical.


People are not able to discount social presentations as unreal just because they appear on a screen. Rather, "closeness" counts. Interactive media engage brain systems evolved for other purposes; namely, the evaluation of social experience.

Social intelligence in automated interactions is good business.


Socially intelligent interfaces increase memory and learning (and make online education more effective).

Social interfaces are persuasive (and increase up-sell, cross-sell and conversion rates). They are arousing (and motivate users to stick with interactions longer).

They are engaging (and minimize "churn" by encouraging users to return over time). They increase trust (and make people feel more secure and comfortable about disclosing personal information online).


Placing a character in an interface makes the social foundation of mediated interaction explicit.


Online transactions become social conversations.

Difficult procedures can be explained. The web is less lonely. Technology is easier to use."

The communication and marketing advantages that animated talking characters can provide can be multiple:

a) Interactive characters can increase trust in information sources.
"Human relationships, especially those focused on important life decisions and events, are built on trust. Professionals who most successfully direct these events (e.g. teachers, doctors, financial advisors, counselors) display social intelligence when they emphasize, above all other social attributes, credibility, reliability and objectivity. When people participate in important conversations, the trust they attribute to companies and organizations is as dependent on the individuals that represent those entities as they are on abstract evaluations of the larger organization."

b) Innovative visual interface element.

Media Semantics realistic character faces samples

c) Interface element is not static - interacts with visitor by following mouse cursor movement with eyes

d) Any type of audio message can be embedded in an animated character: announcement, ad, call to action

e) Communicates more rapidly to those who can't or don't enjoy reading too much (kids, people whose first language may not be the same as yours, reading-impaired people, illiterate and poor people).

span class="photocredit">Learning Agents on-site promotion animated character

f) Can provide extra information, support or persuasive invitations that may help compel the reader to take further action. Can clarify product use and installation.

g) Can facilitate site navigation.
Animated talking characters can also provide increased customer retention due to their ability to facilitate, clarify, guide and coach readers and prospective customers in more easily completing tasks or navigation paths that may be otherwise too difficult or not immediately self-evident to them.


h) Can enhance online training courses by introducing chapters, lesson topics and learning objectives.

j) Are easy to update, modify.
All of the animated talking character tools on the market make it really easy for anyone to build, modify, update and add new talking characters to their web sites. Interfaces are highly graphical and on average quite easy to use.


k) Can be used to deliver unattended presentations.
Animated talking characters can provide self-running online demonstrations and intros to new products/services which are available 24/7/365.


i) Integration with instant messaging.
Animated character interfaces can be easily integrated within instant messaging platforms and environments (look at Yahoo for some effective examples of great, professionally looking custom IM avatars), and it is likely, in my opinion that this area will see major growth in the near future.
My custom Robin Good avatar on Yahoo Messenger

l) Wide reach and compatibility
Most animated talking character tools out there are based on the Adobe Flash technology which is now found pre-installed on the vast majority of browsers across all operating systems. Even when the Flash plugin is not yet available on a browser, the automatic download and install procedure takes only a few seconds to complete. On top of this, all of the technologies utilized to create animated talking characters output files that require relatively little bandwidth and are therefore not sensitive to the speed of the Internet connectivity available and which can be seen therefore by people on the most varied types of connection lines. Compelling interactive characters can now be easily photographed, edited and compiled, with much greater ease and fewer resources than it takes for short video clips, though this difference is rapidly blurring with the rapidly expanding reach of broadband connections.

But what strikes me as being the most relevant and strategically valuable information items about animated talking characters are these two points extracted once again from this illuminating Stanford research paper:

1) Characters have personalities that can represent brands

"Personality is critical in learning and business. When personalities are compelling and well-matched between source and receiver, communication is effective. When personality is ambiguous or changes unpredictably during an interaction, communication is compromised. This is well documented in communication contexts from the classroom to business contact centers. The reason that personality is important is that it allows people to form expectations about how social actors will behave.

Predictability is a key factor in allowing people to understand and feel comfortable with communication partners. Personality allows people to place others in familiar categories related to communication styles. In short, personality allows people to make a complex social world simpler.

We often assume that personalities are unique and complicated, and that social intelligence means having "a lot" of personality. Both of these assumptions, however, are misleading.

Based on a large body of research in psychology, personalities can be described with relatively few attributes and they can be effectively adapted over time to increase the strength and output of a relationship. One of the most effective treatments of personality is to make them consistent.

In the case of human-human interaction, this is relatively easy, because there is one brain that controls everything that someone says and does. In the case of automated online interactions, however, personality is a far more difficult venture. Instead of one person in control, there are more likely several authors.

These are the different people, from technologists to marketers, who determine what is said, what is shown, how an interaction unfolds, and whether personality is consistent across different parts of a presentation.

Characters provide an effective method to organize personality when a design team creates an interaction. Characters can be constructed with backstories that guide character behavior, consistency of visual appearance, and language styles - all of the features that determine personality consistency in real people.

In addition, personalities can be constructed that match corporate brands. Just as real people in teaching, advertising, retail, and customer care are selected and coached to present personalities matched to their organizational role, automated characters can be constructed that reflect a brand. The personality of an automated character is one of the strongest and most reliable methods to consistently promote brand awareness through predictable appearance and scripting of speech and behavior. And unlike real-life counterparts, characters never have a bad day or deviate from the script."

2) Characters can communicate social roles

"Like personality, social roles help people simplify and quickly understand a social relationship. Social roles - organized and consistent presentations that communicate features of occupation, information specialties or affiliation - mark our social essence. They describe those features of ourselves that say the most about us and say it quickly. Socially intelligent people effectively use social roles to focus others on the personal qualities most important in an interaction.

Interactive characters can have social roles every bit as influential as those assigned to real people. These roles, when made obvious, can be used strategically to simplify automated transactions and maximize their effectiveness. A social role, for example, can summarize the activities a character will perform. A character focused on selling, for example, should take on a different role (that of salesperson) than one designed to disseminate information (the roles of teacher or customer service representative).

Characters, through costume and behavior, can let people know who they are and whether they will relate to users as equals or experts. For example, research shows that when characters are labeled (and costumed) as specialists, people think they are better at performing specific tasks than when a character is presented in an ambiguous or generic role.

One important role in online applications is that of teammate. When customers feel that they are working on the same team with a character, for example, a wide range of positive feelings and behaviors accrue. Customers who feel that they are part of a team enjoy the interaction more, reciprocate more by helping in the interaction, and feel more responsible to jointly own problems that occur and to help to solve them."

Also of great importance is the issue of intelligently selecting animated talking characters that would be perceived as trustworthy and positive by online readers.

While the research statistics provided by Professor Reeves of Stanford clearly show that only very few people have negative reactions to web pages containing animated talking characters, choice of avatars designa and style can be very critical.

"Attention needs to be given to character casting, character choice, and creative execution. Everyone that can name a character who bugs them can also name a replacement that sounds attractive. In answer to this problem, technologies that power character interfaces are effective to the extent that they allow for rapid development of multiple characters (for pretesting with users and to provide choice in a final product), and also allow interaction to proceed without the character in the few cases where no social presence is preferred."

(Source: The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters - Byron Reeves - Center for the Study of Language and Information Stanford University)

Animated Talking Characters

A Mini-Guide to the best tools out there

Here an updated list of all animated talking characters products available on the market today:

Oddcast - Sitepal

Sitepal is the premier and oldest internet-based subscription service that allows you to create animated talking characters, which can be easily added to your website. No programming knowledge is required to design, manage and publish your characters. Sitepal characters can be customized according to multiple variables which include:
- Age
- Gender
- Hair Style
- Skin, hair and eye color
- Make-up
- Clothing and accessories
Not only.
Sitepal allows you to directly record your own audio messages, or to submit them as texts which are automatically converted into audio by a text-to-voice transcription system, or to select from a library of pre-recorded greetings. The Oddcast life-like conversational characters can recite just about any text you submit to them while sporting a pretty-effective lyp-synch effect. The animated charachters now support over 64 different languages and can read any of your typed-up text announcements automatically. Oddcast offers a number of different versions of its product, from server-based licenses costing over $ 15,000 to hosted solutions like VHost SitePal for professionals and SOHO businesses starting at $9.95/month.
Sitepal Demo.
Sitepal examples.
Robin Good interview with Oren Levy - VP of Business - Oddcast

Vox Proxy
Vox Proxy is a software suite that enables you to add 3D animated talking characters to PowerPoint presentations. Vox Proxy includes a wide set of different characters that can be easily integrated into any PowerPoint presentation
Cost: $199.00
Trial Version.

Media Semantics' Character Builder
Media Semantics' Character Builder allows non-animators to create Flash-based, talking animated characters for presentations. A more sophisticated tool, the Character Server, allows you to create database-driven applications involving characters. Character Server includes support for server-side Text-to-Speech (TTS) and AIML-based question answering.
More info.
Cost: Character Builder Software - $295.00, Character Server - $995.00.
Free try-out demo versions.

Reallusion iClone
Reallusion iClone lets you construct personalized 3D avatars from your personal digital photos, and set them in your personalized 3D environment. iClone's avatars can be exported to your video, web, mobile, or screensaver projects. iClone makes it simple to construct 3D animation featuring customized 3D talking characters you create using iClone's character library and your digital photos. With just a single photograph, a recorded audio narration and iClone's powerful facial morphing and 3D character animation technology you can immediately start building 3D animated talking characters.
Cost: Standard Version $79.95 - Studio Version $179.95
Trial download.
Try-out version.
Reallusion also markets Crazyrtalk, another cost-effective tool that allows you to create and control a virtual cast of live talking characters. These can be utilized to deliver audio video talking-head like performances for your video, web, mobile or messaging media. CrazyTalk starts at $49.95 for the instant messaging version, and tops out at $149.95 for the Media Studio version which supports: Full screen DV output for DVD projects, a timeline editor for keyframe animation, custom facial expression editing tools, background audio, audio morphing, special visual effects, video overlay, masking, alpha channel and chroma key support. Read about all these features in greater detail.

Codebaby is one of the most advanced animated talking character development platform that allows users to create talking, interactive 3D characters for their Web site. Codebaby characters are very realistic and provide a level of realism and visual impact that is among the best in thius niche sector. CodeBaby content can be displayed through Macromedia Flash player or through CodeBaby's own 3D player.
Cost: Pricing is customized. No public pricing available. You can request more pricing information via this form.

Sculptoris allows you to create unlimited 3D & 2D lifelike animated talking characters that are output as Flash .SWF files which you can publish anywhere. With Sculptoris you just select a character, enter the text you want, choose audio file of what the character is saying. You then export the completed character which is ready to be placed on your website or inside your CD-ROM. The key advantage with Sculptoris is that you don't have to pay for hosting and streaming charges like market leader Sitepal offers. You pay whatever the hosting of those characters will (eventually) add up to your own web site hosting fees. You use your custom created characters anywhere, anytime as you have the original code and you can host it anywhere you want. Sculptoris Voices Online Studio can work with any language. English, French, Spanish etc. and there is full support for Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired or for viewers without audio.
More info.
Download demo.
Sculptoris costs $99.95 - Learning Agents
LearningAgents enables you to create animated training sessions or virtual web tours with customized characters.
Learning Agents demo.
In order to view StreamMaker-based courses, you must install a proprietary, Windows only multimedia player. This is a manual download and installation process, more info here.
Cost: Customized rates. Call 954-233-4000 x5192
Learning Agents demo.

TalkingHeadz is the newest (yet to be officially launched) animated talking character product that allows Yahoo!, ICQ, AOL AIM, MSN, Google Talk and Skype messengers to communicate by utilizing real-life-looking 3D animated talking characters. TalkingHeadz can be animated by text to speech, voice over IP and emotion.
How it works - System requirements.
Try-out (as soon as it becomes available).

VoiceSync houses a variety of downloadable shareware applications that create visual images and patterns from voice and sound input. VoiceSync is an alternative therapy research initiative that aims to, "Improve our vibrational perception." Most software on VoiceSync is free to download.

SpeechAgents is a subscription service that allows you to create unlimited animated, speaking characters, which can be added to your web site or auction listings, to enhance your presence and increase sales.SpeechAgents provides an online interface, that makes designing, managing and publishing your characters a very simple process, with absolutely no programming knowledge required. Speechagents offers several account plans starting from the free one which includes unlimited streams, a choice of two (2) Characters, three (3) background Images, and one (1) speech block with two hundred (200) text spaces. With the free (Bronze Package), you can place your SpeechAgent Characters on any number of web sites. The main difference between the free and paid packages, is advertising banners that will be displayed in the Character Player after your SpeechAgent has finished speaking, and the inability to place your characters on eBay Auctions.


Robin Good -
Readers' Comments    
2008-01-25 13:04:00


That's great and all. Where can I find information about creating my own IN FLASH??

Why pay when you can do it yourself?

2007-06-12 08:39:53

Tim Freriks

You did not include one of the best animated character technologies, NOAH. The URL is

posted by Matthew Guschwan on Wednesday, June 21 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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