Wave of Virtual Euro Personalities Is Trash

LONDON (04/25/2000) - U.K. dot-com companies looking to break into international media markets have a new angle. Euro trash -- as that crowd of jet-setter types slumming and on the make in the world's capitals has come to be known -- has gone virtual, in the form of human-like, computer-generated personalities such as virtual news readers Ananova and Vandrea and virtual European pop singers E-Cyas and T-Babe.

Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider computer game 3D character created by U.K.-based Eidos PLC, started the "cyber-babe" craze, and Ananova Ltd. (formally the Press Association New Media Ltd. before it was renamed and put up for sale) is hoping to grab some comparable limelight and turn it into cash. Besides reading the news in two-minute news bites on the company's Web site, the Ananova character will eventually make online e-commerce transactions over computers, mobile telephones and televisions, her makers promise.

The voice of Ananova is stilted and sounds like a female Stephen Hawking (the renowned U.K. physicist afflicted with a neurological disease), and the character doesn't appear to have any bottom teeth. Plus, it takes a lot longer to listen to an Ananova newscast than to read the stories yourself. But the most annoying aspect of Ananova is the entire construct of the whole endeavor -- E-mail her! Talk to her! Get to know her "personality!"

For the most part, the heavy news coverage of the character -- from the likes of The Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Corp., Reuters Group PLC, and Cable News Network LP -- focused not on its effectiveness as a news reader, but on how the marvels of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) managed to render the green-haired, heavily made-up news reader.

At the well-attended news conference for the launch of Ananova, CNN's Richard Blystone asked, "Are people so pathetic they have to make a relationship with an animated puppet?"

"Our research shows that people prefer to get their news from humans rather than computer text," Ananova commercial director Vivienne Adshead replied.

And one thing is for sure, a computer-generated "human" is sure cheaper to keep on the payroll than a real human media star. Furthermore, for the moment, the virtual character is easier to promote in this media-saturated culture.

The U.K.'s Channel 5 Ltd. based its own virtual news reader, Vandrea (which was launched a month before Ananova), on one of its real employees, Andrea Catherwood, as a way to promote its re-launched news service.

Pop star T-Babe was created by Glasgow Records Ltd. to grab the attention of the record industry ("To see her visually is to appreciate a cyber sensual creature that is the epitome of womankind," reads the Web site).

And the Keanu Reeves/Ricky Martin/George Michael pop star, E-cyas (e-cyas.com), had already scored a Top 40 hit in Germany with the single "Are You Real?" before it was released this month in the U.K. by the Edel Ltd. label.

All of the "parent" companies of the virtual characters have reported unusual amounts of interest in and e-mail for the "human-like" characters. But people who eagerly e-mail the nonexistent personalities make up a limited target audience that needs to be expanded.

As Eidos proudly announced in a statement this month, Oscar-winner and real-life human Angelina Jolie has been cast in the role of Lara Croft for the film version of "Tomb Raider."

Wonder who will play Ananova in the TV movie of the week?

Ananova Ltd., in Leeds, England, can be contacted at +44-845-121-6060, or at http://www.ananova.com/. Eidos, in London, can be contacted at +44-208-636-3000, or at http://www.eidos.com/ .

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