MicroSoft has launched an avatar-fronted search interface called
Ms. Dewey , in order to promote their MS Live search service. An avatar is a term coopted from virtual reality which is used to describe the graphic representation of a person within the VR environment.
The Ms. Dewey avatar is a clever piece of Flash engineering coupled up with various video files and the MS Live search engine. Ms. Dewey is played by an actress named Janina Gavankar, who apparently prerecorded a bunch of video snippets which are queued up contextually for various responses to search terms that are typed into the submission form field. After you submit a search keyword, she says (and sometimes does) something witty, then the MS Live search results scroll down in an AJAX menu beside her.
Try out these particularly funny search terms on Ms. Dewey:
President Bush 
Dick Cheney 
weather forecasts 
Yo Mama 
Lord of the Rings 
Halo 2 
A “share this with a friend” link is included, making this qualify even more as some nice linkbait, as some online marketing folx refer to it . While quite a few folx have turned their noses up at Ms. Dewey as not being a serious search service contender, they’re perhaps missing the point that she’s pretty fun to interact with, and as a promotional effort goes, it’s probably pretty effective linkbait. Within just a short timeframe, many people will have emailed links to Ms. Dewey to their friends, getting a whole lot of people to use MicroSoft’s search engine who otherwise wouldn’t have tried it out.
I’d only say that the design group has dropped the ball a bit by not highlighting their MS Live brandname on the search results. (They also dropped the ball by advertising Ms. Dewey’s email address through the interface, firstname.lastname@example.org ,Â because it’sÂ inoperative, at least when I tested it. “Status: 5.0.0 – Remote SMTP server has rejected address”. They should have had someone responding toÂ those notes, or they should’ve created an intelligent agent to respond to submissions to it.)
It’s maybe mentionable that Ask dropped the Jeeves butler mascot from the frontend of their search earlier this year, and here MicroSoft is adding a human mascot onto their search. Ask was never this attractive, though, and this ploy doesn’t seem in the least retro. Slick!
Interfaces like Ms. DeweyÂ actually aren’t all that hard to do, and there’sÂ one company that has made it really easy to incorporate interactive avatarsÂ similar toÂ thisÂ within your blogs and other websites. Read on and I’ll describe how you can use avatars.
Oddcast.com  is offering their configurable SitePal avatars for this sort of application, at wonderfully competitive pricing. Their avatars are a bit cheesier than Ms. Dewey, since they’re built out of Flash animated cartoonish illustrations (I should say “comic-book character illustrations”) instead of out of a custom-filmed, gorgeous model/actress. However, there are a number of other features that are actually very cool.
SitePals allow you to choose from a large set of different avatar faces to represent your site, along with configurable choices on eyes, ears, nose, clothes, and jewelry. They’ll even draw up a custom avatar, perhaps a character based on your own photo if you wish, for special pricing. You can alsoÂ use their preset backgrounds, or easily upload your own art to use as the backdrop for the avatar.
For the voice, you can upload your own audio files, or record sound from your computer, using the speakers as a microphone. The avatar programming matches up the motions of the avatar’s mouth with the spoken voice.
If you don’t wish to use your own voice, and don’t have anyone to record, you can make use of their text-to-audio voice synthesis which also comes with a few different male and female voices to choose from — some voices are foreign accented, intended for use with other languages.
The voice synthesizer is very cool to me, even if many consumers would consider it to be a bit passÃ© due to mechanical sound quality. SitePal’s voice synthesis is actually using the AT&T Labs Text-to-Speech technology  which I’ve been playing around with for years. Automatically converting written text into audio is complex technology, and AT&T’s system isÂ one of the mostÂ advanced, although you sometimes still have to submit text that’s phonetically spelled. SitePal has made a great API for using this technology, and they’ve even handled a lot of pronounciation quirks of common EnglishÂ and they’ve handled expansions of common abbreviationsÂ automatically for you.
The SitePal API will let you start and stop the talking, and have slight control over avatar behaviours like making the eyes follow the user’s cursor, or glancing around.
There’s apparently also an option to use an intelligent agent and knowledge base in order to enable the avatar to respond to queries from endusers, but if you have programming capability, I’d recommend you program your dynamic responses all on your own. I didn’t try this option out, since I’ve played around with intelligent agents before, and it didn’t seem as interesting as the other features.
This is a really cheap and easy way to add a talking head to a website. Unless this is adopted widely, this could be a good differentiator for some sites, and it can humanize and enhance the user experienceÂ when navigating around webpages. They have a few different packages, and theÂ pricier packages are the best in terms of features like theÂ no branding option, and you can set up multiple avatars to use, etc. This is also a beautifully cheap way to add a talking voice to a webpage — very useful for a lot of applications, and easier than trying to use other commercial interfaces for the AT&T software.
For the Oddcast.com staff, I have one big recommendation for a feature that would seem to be highly desirable to most avatar users: smiles. The API really, really, really needs to allow you to submit aÂ parameter to get the avatar to smile on command.
This VR paradigm is likely to continue influencing the internet, as I implied in another recent blog posting on the use of Second Life for online marketing . Ms. Dewey is probably just the beginning. Savvy online marketers know that 3-d spaces and humanized user interfaces are more inviting to consumers.