Intel exec envisions a future of Avatar Chats

Chip maker is developing system that could replace text IM systems with voice messages sent via an avatar

In a few years, instead of getting an instant text message from the boss, workers may see the chief's face pop up on the screen and start talking.

At least that's the vision of Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner.

In an interview with Computerworld, Rattner said Intel researchers are working on what he calls Avatar Chat -- an instant messaging technology that would replace IM text messages with a talking avatar showing facial expressions and voice.

Rattner said the capability could be available to users for instant messaging within a year or two.

"Every once in a while we do something in the Intel labs and I think, 'Oh, this is really cool,'" said Rattner.

Using the system, one gets "a message and, instead of looking at text, the avatar actually talks to you. When you play it at your end, you hear my voice and see my avatar with its face moving in synch with what I'm saying. It's like avatar voice mail," he added.

Avatar Chat will rely on audio products, a camera and facial recognition-like technology inside computers, tablets and smartphones. The avatars will use voice recording as it mimics the movements and facial expressions of the person sending the message.

Basically, as the app records the user's voice, it's also recording his expressions so they can be added to the avatar.

The avatar can look exactly like the user or like a better looking version of him or her.

"There's the way you think you look versus the way you actually look," said Rattner, laughing. "My avatar has more hair."

Users also will be able to create a personal avatar from a list of cartoon characters, superheroes and animals.

"We think it could be sort of the visual equivalent of ring tones," said Rattner. "You could keep a whole catalog of avatars and say, Gee, I feel like a cat or the Hulk today and choose that avatar."

"The cartoony avatar has existed for a while on chat, but Intel is raising it a notch with a much more realistic and surrealistic approach, plus adding voice," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.

"By adding voice and facial gestures, this improves context and enables the user to multitask and not have to be looking at the chat screen to communicate," he added.

Moorhead said the system could improve communication among workers.

"Over time with increased innovation, this technology could be very important for the workplace," Moorhead said. "Context in the workplace is as important as it is in the home. By moving from smiley faces to actually seeing the avatar smile, it improves communication value."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said if he wants to see someone's expression, especially in the workplace, he'd probably opt for a video call.

"An avatar still isn't you," he said. "I think it has its place, certainly in gaming or for all the little Justin Beiber fans who want to create their own Beiber avatars. Otherwise, why not just use video."

Though Kerravala did note that Avatar Chat could be useful for people who don't want to be on video, like teleworkers who may spend much of their day in their pajamas.

"I can see using it so I can sit in my underwear and chat and have a guy in a suit doing my talking," he said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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