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.