In a world where online transactions are still viewed as risky or complicated and users’ thirst for e-learning is increasing, IT companies are moving to improve both services with virtual characters.

They’re creating, and employing, every manager’s dream worker: a virtual assistant that works

24 hours a day, seven days a week, doesn’t ask for vacation, never gets sick, is always pleasant, informed and looks sharp.

CodeBaby Corp., an Edmonton-based company, is dedicated to creating user-friendly virtual assistants that make Web surfing simpler for the user. Named recently as one of the Top 25 Up & Comers in Canadian IT in the Branham 300 list for 2004, CodeBaby offers a look at the future of online customer service.

“”This is the next generation,”” says CodeBaby director of marketing Doug Johnson. “”It’s the next generation of what the (Microsoft) paper clip could have been.””

The technology has come a long way indeed since the “”Clippy”” tool in Microsoft Office. (Clippy was given his walking papers with the launch of Windows XP in 2001, but diehard fans can turn him back on in their user options.)

Now, characters like CodeBaby’s creations, can easily update themselves to be intelligent, fun and engaging. As an example, Johnson says the assistant can identify the user and sport a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey — if the client is a Leaf fan, of course. The goal is to keep the user coming back to the site and not bore them.

Laura, a 20-something female and CodeBaby’s first major contract, was recently offered for free on Intuit Canada’s QuickTaxWeb, a portal that helps people fill out their tax returns and gives tax tips around the clock. Intuit called Laura the first computer-generated employee and Canada’s first virtual tax assistant.

“”When you’re doing an online transaction, the biggest problem is abandonment,”” says Shaheel Hooda, chief executive officer at CodeBaby, adding that 50 to 70 per cent of transactions are dropped off before completion. “”3-D virtual agents can help retain visitors to the site.””

The characters actually mouth words and their dialogue is clear, but conversational. The lingo isn’t boring either. On CodeBaby’s Web site, a male virtual assistant demonstration, uses phrases such as “”zillions”” and “”sweet sound”” while he helps the user through their online problems.

According to 2003 Data Monitor Research, companies will spend more than US$30 billion a year by 2005 overcoming poor online customer service and retention.

E-learning experts say that while this new technology is only starting to find the market, it’s a solution that could provide workers, or users, with instant information at their fingertips.

“”Right now in Canada we’re seeing a growing need for just-in-time-learning,”” says Julie Kaufman, director of Professional Services for IDC Canada, adding that employees struggle to find time to take workshops. She says in the future, information in three-day workshops could be condensed into hours on the Internet, perhaps with the help of a virtual assistant.

She stresses that virtual assistants are not the only solution, but they are part of a growing market.

Byron Reeves, from the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University published a paper in 2002 called The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters. In it, he says: “”Characters can increase the trust that users place in online experiences, in part because they make online experiences easier. Online transactions become social conversations. Difficult procedures can be explained. The Web is less lonely. Technology is easier to use.””

Hooda says face-to-face interaction is still the best method of communication, but virtual assistants are close to the human touch. For example, since the majority of calls received in a call centre are routine in nature, he says a knowledgeable virtual assistant could solve the problems callers face.

CodeBaby’s Laura isn’t alone in the world. In the U.K., Fujitsu is tapping into e-government by creating Fiona — a brunette who takes the role of a council representative in the Lewisham Council area. She talks to the user via the screen and the user responds in natural language, using the keyboard.

The company is trying to develop a plan to integrate both handwriting recognition and voice input. Officials say that 60 per cent of users were comfortable getting information from an on-screen assistant.

As well, Fujitsu has developed MAISY (Manchester Airport Information Systems), a network of interactive kiosks across the airport. A virtual assistant, also named Maisy, dressed in the same blue uniform as her “”real-life”” ground crew colleagues, greets passengers and helps them find their way around the airport and to public transport links.

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