Why it makes sense for McDonald’s (and soon others) to give machines a personality

21st-century living can be quite depressing. Most of us spend an overwhelming majority of our day interacting with phone, computer, and TV screens. It’s a lifestyle, unfortunately, that probably won’t change anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make it more enjoyable.

What if each one of our devices had a personality? Your phone was philosophical, always finding a way to put life into perspective. Your TV was lively, making a nine-hour Netflix binge not seem like a waste of time.

We’re on the cusp of humanizing our interactions with machines – bringing more life to our days. And you should be very excited.

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Touch interactions are nice and all. But let’s be honest, we look like a bunch of cavemen huddled over fire whenever a screen draws our attention.

Conversational interfaces, on the other hand, are much more natural. They take our attention off of a screen. It allows us to convey the context of difficult emotions (like sarcasm), which text and touch can’t even scrape the surface of. Being able to convey emotions and have more depth in the dialogue also allows the machine to capture the user’s intent, which makes a huge difference.

Conversational interfaces are the next frontier in interaction. This is why we see companies, large and small, pouring massive resources into making voice work.

On one hand, you’ve got a company like Orbita, who’s approaching voice interfaces with extreme focus – to create seamless conversational interfaces for healthcare. By focusing on a niche, they can solve for all the idiosyncrasies in that specific sphere, incorporate the necessary lingo, and truly define the standard for conversational interfaces in healthcare.

On the other hand, Google, Amazon, and Apple are all vying to create a truly conversational AI that’s useful, personable, and indispensable across any and all disciplines. This multidisciplinary approach means there are endless nuances to encode and unforeseen hurdles. As a result, they have to employ linguists, comedians, and a slew of other disciplines to make machine language more well-rounded. I’m confident they’ll create this conversational AI, but the path to success is much longer.

Giving a voice to machines is really only half of the outlook, though. Siri, Alexa, and other conversational AIs are all going take on a physical form through the means of Digital Humans.

The Visual Appeal

Last week I covered “Everything you need to know about Digital Humans”, discussing how these new visual entities created entirely in the digital medium are poised to take over corporate advertising, pop culture, and our online personas.

We’re at an interesting point in time where graphic artists have the tools to create extremely realistic-looking images from absolutely nothing.

Take, for example, the high-fashion campaign Balmain executed with entirely virtual models. To the scrolling eye, the image fits right alongside every other real (probably Photoshopped) photograph. But, the models in the campaign are about as real as imitation crab meat.

To choreograph a campaign with digital humans, you must bring together experts from various disciplines. There’s a virtual clothing designer (CLO), virtual model (Shudu), the modeling agency (The Diigitals), and even a virtual photographer (CJW). Bringing all of this creative expertise and imaging software together, there’s no surprise that digital humans are on the minds of every visionary.

Now, add in facial expression mapping technology such as CrazyTalk and Faceware and you’ve got a digital being that can express facial emotion and nonverbal cues just like a normal human.

Combining an intelligent, conversational AI with an animated, photorealistic digital human is a crazy combination. We’re practically creating a new form of life.

Ethically, this frightens people. They fear that we’ll lose control over what’s real and fake online (honestly, what’s new?). Before we get too deep fear mongering all the worst case scenarios, I want to dissect this outlook piece by piece.

Let’s first look at how this will impact businesses.

Friendly Faces

Giving machines the ability to communicate verbally AND non-verbally essentially gives new life to the front-facing side of business.

Soul Machines is one company that imagined how McDonald’s could liven up their kiosks with digital humans and conversational AI.

How does this differ from the cashiers working the counters today?

Well for one, it’s going to be a lot cheaper over time. More importantly, it allows brands like McDonald’s to control their image and brand positioning across their entire company. We’ve all had a bad fast-food experience where the cashier was miserable and it put a damper on our day.

With these digital humans, McDonald’s can curate the language and experience they want their customers to interact with, which is very appealing to all companies. In-person cashier kiosks aren’t the only experiences taking on this new form of interaction.

Virtual Guidance

Ten years from now, Netflix can’t rely on using the same online interface they use today. Already, people dislike scrolling through endless lists to find the right movie or show to watch.

Instead, they may employ a digital human (named Joey, perhaps), that has the personality of a moviephile – literally having an intelligent perspective on every movie and show in existence.

You open Netflix and Joey greets you. Joey then asks you a stream of questions to help you make the ideal selection. Netflix has already collected enough data on each user to know what they’ll likely enjoy. But, Joey turns this into an interpersonal journey of finding the right show, like conversing with a friend.

What’s intriguing, is that all it takes is for Joey to hit the nail on the head one or two times and you’re bought into this new interface. It’s kind of like how early iPhones had those pointless apps that imitated bubble wrap and lightsabers, which for some odd reason intrigued people.

Over time, Joey becomes the interface through which you make all of your Netflix decisions. Heck, maybe Joey even watches and reacts during the show along with you.

Any company with a digital presence is going to feel the effects of this emerging form of voice-enabled interface. Companies will need to adopt digital human interfaces in their own unique ways. For instance, the New York Times will bring on a digital human differently from Salesforce.

A new industry will emerge that caters to providing companies with these interpersonal interfaces.

One of the early providers (on the graphics side of things) is a company called Irma Z. They are a Digital Human Talent Agency that provides companies with one-of-a-kind digital humans to fit their needs. Currently, their roster of talent is a little risque’. However, services like theirs are going to be in high demand less than ten years from now.

Overall, we’re talking about an entirely new way of engaging with every single device and piece of software we use today. It’s a massive change that won’t come easy. But, with these steps, we begin entering a realm of ultra-personalization and experiences of our own choosing, known as Imagined Reality.

This conclude Part 1 of a 2-Part series on Digital Humans and Conversational Interfaces.

Tomorrow, we will explore how consumers will each get the chance to create their ideal digital human companion they carry with them across technological interactions.

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