Who is Zoe and Why Should Business Centres Care?

Meet Zoe. She's a new breed of virtual assistant that could one day revolutionise the way we communicate and do business online.

We’re all familiar with virtual assistants. Take Alliance Virtual’s live receptionists for instance – they’re the people to whom you outsource work but never see, beavering away in the background, answering calls and churning through your admin tasks. You only know them by their name, the sound of their voice and perhaps an avatar, yet they provide an essential service and for many businesses, they’re considered a permanent member of the team.

But virtual office assistants, brace yourselves: there’s a new virtual assistant in town and it’s not what you’re expecting.

Researchers at Cambridge University have developed a digital face that’s capable of interacting with PC users. Currently, the ‘face’ is based on that of soap actress Zoe Lister, and she has been programmed to display various emotions including happiness, sadness, anger and sympathy. Those key emotions – of which there are six – can then be combined to create various other emotions using a blend of facial expressions and voice tones.

So advanced is the technology that the avatar changes its voice to suit the feeling that the user wants to simulate. As such, the lifelike figure has been hailed as a new style of virtual assistant due to its ability to interact with the user and the massive potential this can offer to customer service-orientated firms. Could your business centre be one of them?

How does it work?

Users type in a message, specifying the combination of emotions, and Zoe recites the text along with the relevant facial expressions. Cambridge University’s researchers say that Zoe is the most expressive controllable avatar ever created, replicating human emotions with “unprecedented realism”.

It is hoped that avatars like Zoe can be used as a digital assistant for smartphones or face messaging. Just imagine the possibilities for business centres. Rather than a faceless Instant Message conversation or an exchange of emails, a digital assistant like Zoe could effectively discuss matters with clients almost as if you were talking face-to-face.

Going one step further, researchers hope to be able to personalise the head with their own faces and voices, meaning that your clients could one day have a virtual conversation with “you”.

What’s even more exciting is that the technology is being developed to help autistic and deaf children to read emotions and lip-read. It could take website accessibility to another level completely, and businesspeople who find it difficult to use or interact with standard websites could enjoy a more user-friendly online experience.

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One day, virtual assistants like Zoe could become a familiar sight in offices and on mobile gadgets or smartphones. Professor Roberto Cipolla from the Department of Engineering at University of Cambridge, even went on to say that Zoe is an “emotionally responsive face that human beings can actually have a conversation with.”

The technology is still in its infancy. But there’s no denying that the building blocks have been laid to create a virtual assistant that could, one day, revolutionise your business. In the meantime, watch out for Zoe. She will be coming to a small screen near you in the not-too-distant future.

Watch a video and ‘meet’ Zoe here: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/face-of-the-future-rears-its-head

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