A growing number of virtual assistants, like Siri, have charmed the world with their human characteristics -- they can speak, crack jokes and even get mad.

But Volio, a startup headed by Nuance co-founder Ronald Croen, is flipping that idea on its head with technology that uses artificial intelligence to give humans the characteristics of virtual assistants. With Volio's product, anyone from Oprah to Obama could be summoned instantly on a screen for a one-on-one chat about their area of expertise. It’s the face-to-face conversation, only automated, digitized and scaled.

Volio combines video with natural language processing software that helps computers make sense of human speech. The product lets public figures give the impression they’re available anytime to dispense personalized advice to their fans.

In Esquire magazine’s new "Talk with Esquire" app, the first to feature Volio technology, Esquire fashion director Nick Sullivan, grooming expert Rodney Cutler and drinks guru David Wondrich stand by ready to address readers’ fashion and mixology needs. Tap on Wondrich, and a video of him appears in which he asks, “What’s your favorite type of liquor?” Answer with a sentence like, “You know me I’ll drink nearly anything, so let’s go with vodka,” and Wondrich replies, “Not too picky I see.” The virtual mixologist then proceeds to narrow down a list of drink choices. He’ll ultimately go through the steps required to prepare a cocktail to teach the viewer how it’s done.

Volio’s speech-recognition and language technology allow people to speak normally to Wondrich and have him talk back, enhancing the impression that the Esquire columnist has interrupted his busy schedule for a video chat right then and there.

The app could offer a way to help people feel intimately connected with people they’ve never met -- but care about. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Volio tries to give people the sense they’re actually looking their idol in the eye.

“It’s an immersive experience that feels different because of the face,” said Croen, Volio's founder and chief executive. “There’s no other place where I'm looking [someone] in the eye [who's] looking at me and effectively giving me the feeling that I’m being heard ... We’ve done user tests that show that’s what people use the most: 'I know its not real but I felt like the person was talking to me.'”

But because of the way they’re built, these virtual experts don’t have a limitless store of knowledge. Like automated call center agents, they’re ultimately available to provide the answers on a very specific set of topics, rather than being able to address any query a reader might come with. Croen notes these aren’t quite "conversations," but rather, the person on the app will “talk about what he came to talk about."

The Volio-powered side of the conversation is composed of snippets of video of the experts speaking. The clips were recorded expressly for the app according to a script outlined by its creators, and are stitched together to give the appearance of a fluid dialog. Since the answers are canned, one can quickly exhaust the expert’s well of advice. If Esquire, or another Volio partner, was to discover that people are frequently asking a question their avatar can’t answer, new responses could be added, but only by re-recording new dialog (preferably with the same backdrop, outfit and lighting as the original to make the addition appear seamless).

In some cases, conversing with the app might be less efficient -- albeit more novel -- than merely doing a Google search for cocktail recipes. And Croen agrees that there are times when it would be faster to find a YouTube video with instructions on making a mojito, rather than chit-chatting with Wondrich. Yet he maintains that the personal, face-to-face nature of the Volio experience will be compelling enough to draw in viewers.

“The interactivity advances the benefit, or there’s an emotional purpose or connection," Croen said. "If you have some benefit in the personalization and in the customization of the conversation ... or if you care about the person because you already know who they are, then this is better."

Croen said that the Volio technology could be used by essentially any public figure or brand seeking to interact with people on a more personal level. He has his sights set on recruiting celebrities, chefs, teachers and companies to offer everything from cooking tips to corporate training.

Eventually, it might even be possible for individuals to take advantage of the startup’s technology, and outsource any undesirable conversations to their own Volio-enhanced alter-egos. Does your aunt wish you’d call more often? Tell her to get in touch with your Volio self.

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  • Girls Around Me

    Despite its name, the controversial <a href="http://girlsaround.me/" target="_hplink">Girls Around Me iPhone app</a> let the user find girls or guys near his or her location. The app used publicly available photos from Facebook and location check-ins from Foursquare, letting the app-user check out the faces of nearby strangers, who didn't now their data was being used in this way. <a href="http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/03/31/tracking-women-now-theres-not-an-app-for-that/" target="_hplink">According to the Wall Street Journal</a>, after stalking concerns were raised by sites like <a href="http://www.cultofmac.com/157641/this-creepy-app-isnt-just-stalking-women-without-their-knowledge-its-a-wake-up-call-about-facebook-privacy/" target="_hplink">Cult of Mac</a>, Foursquare cut off access to the app so locations would no longer be available to be paired with Facebook photos. The app's creators then <a href="http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-na-nn-girls-around-me-20120404,0,5284353.story" target="_hplink">pulled Girls Around Me from the App Store</a>.

  • Spy Guide

    Available for both the <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/catch-your-cheating-spouse!/id433654335?ls=1&mt=8" target="_hplink">iPhone</a> and <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bustedbooks.spyapp" target="_hplink">Android phones</a> for just $1.99,<a href="http://www.bustedbooks.com/cs/index.html" target="_hplink"> Bustedbooks.com's</a> <a href="http://" target="_hplink">Spy Guide app</a> gives users step-by-step directions on how to spy on text messages, email accounts, computers, cell phone records and more. It's more of an instruction manual than anything, but it's the perfect app to use if you suspect your lover is cheating. Way easier than talking it out, eh? (Yikes.)

  • Stealth SMS Parental Control

    Sure, there are parents out there who are genuinely concerned about their child's well-being, but those who invest $4.02 in this app might possibly be crossing a line. According to the Google Play description of <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.mobilemonkeys.shadow.stealthsms&feature=more_from_developer#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEwMiwibmV0Lm1vYmlsZW1vbmtleXMuc2hhZG93LnN0ZWFsdGhzbXMiXQ.." target="_hplink">Stealth SMS Parental Control</a>, developed by Mobile Monkeys, this app will send all of a child's incoming and outgoing text messages directly to his or her parent's phone. All a parent has to do is sneakily install the app on the phone of his or her child. To be fair, the developers <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.mobilemonkeys.shadow.stealthsms&feature=more_from_developer#?t=W251bGwsMSwxLDEwMiwibmV0Lm1vYmlsZW1vbmtleXMuc2hhZG93LnN0ZWFsdGhzbXMiXQ.." target="_hplink">advise parents</a> thus: "Before you take any drastic measures and have your children grounded, spend a little time investigating in what is really going on."

  • Security Cam

    At first glance, this Security Cam app, <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/security-cam/id300220373?mt=8" target="_hplink">developed by <a href="http://www.crowdedroad.com/" target="_hplink">Crowded Road</a> and <a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/security-cam/id300220373?mt=8" target="_hplink">available for $9.99</a> through the App Store, seems like it could be a useful tool for security-conscious iPhone users. However, if you read what the app allows an iPhone to do, you'll realize the creepy implications. First off, the app enables your iPhone to take pictures at a specific frequency and have it start snapping when motion or a certain audio level is detected; the pictures can be exported later. Furthermore, the iPhone can be put in "Stealth Mode" so its display turns off even when the app is active. If you ever see a random iPhone lying around, be wary: It could be spying on you.

  • Background Check

    <a href="http://www.beenverified.com/iphone" target="_hplink">Available for both iPhone and Android</a> for free, Background Check was developed by public record search service <a href="http://www.beenverified.com/" target="_hplink">BeenVerified</a>. The app lets users perform one free background check every month (if you want to run more than one in a month, you'll have to pay) and allows them to access criminal records, social networking information, property records, and more of whomever they want. [via <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/296196/the-creepiest-apps-and-sites/4" target="_hplink">PCMag</a>]

  • Butt Analyzer

    Yes, you read that right. The Butt Analyzer app is <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=stu.app.ba&feature=search_result#?t=W251bGwsMSwyLDEsInN0dS5hcHAuYmEiXQ.." target="_hplink">available for free</a> on Google Play, and, let's you calculate the attractiveness of whichever derriere you choose -- including your own! -- on a scale of 1 to 10. All you have to do is snap a picture of said derriere. The developer, <a href="http://www.yausoft.com/" target="_hplink">YauSoft</a>, adds in: "It supports both men's and women's butts." Good to know. [via <a href="http://www.reddit.com/r/Android/comments/rqpsf/worstcreepiest_app_youve_ever_seen/" target="_hplink">Reddit</a>]

  • Creepy

    While this isn't a mobile phone app, the desktop app <a href="http://ilektrojohn.github.com/creepy/" target="_hplink">Creepy</a> just couldn't be skipped. Developed by <a href="https://github.com/ilektrojohn" target="_hplink">Ioannis Kakavas</a>, Creepy is a chilling take on location-based social discovery apps like Highlight. But while those who sign up for Highlight select certain information to broadcast, Creepy pulls together all public information about one person that is available online and plots it on a map when possible. <a href="http://diveintoinfosec.wordpress.com/" target="_hplink">According to Kakavas</a>, one of his goals in creating the app was to raise awareness about one's privacy. "References in mainstream media (TV, newspapers, radio) and of course blogs/twitter gave the project enough exposure to send the message across," <a href="http://diveintoinfosec.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/creepy-0-2-or-your-set-was-cool-but-now-its-creepy-too/" target="_hplink">Kakavas wrote in a March 29 blog post</a>. "I have no metrics, but I think it was a good scare for social network fanatics and a wake up call for people to take their locational privacy a little more seriously. Or at least just a good step towards it. Or at least that's what I want to believe."