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Intel launches messaging app...yes, that Intel

The chipmaker isn't known for consumer software, but it's trying to change that with a new mobile-messaging service called Pocket Avatars.

Intel's new Pocket Avatars messaging app. Intel

NEW YORK -- Intel unveiled a new mobile-messaging service Thursday called Pocket Avatars, which looks to stand out in an already crowded field of messaging apps by allowing users to convert their faces into avatars such as the Statue of Liberty or a blowfish.

The name Intel doesn't immediately conjure thoughts of software, but the company said the app is part of its effort to change that and present itself as more than just a chipmaker. Pocket Avatars, now available in Apple and Google's app stores in English in the US and Canada, was also a way to show off some of the software -- such as the facial-tracking code used to power the new app -- developed at Intel Labs, the company's research and development group.

"People just don't know how much software we actually do that's in the devices you carry that are based on Intel chips," Mike Bell, general manager of Intel's New Devices Group, said at a launch event here. "So we thought this was a great way to say, 'Hey, look at the cool stuff we actually do.' "

"This isn't a one-off, this isn't a publicity stunt, this is something we're serious about," he added. "We're going to try lots of new businesses like this."

While Intel employees said Thursday they have high ambitions for the new app, the company is entering one of the most competitive spaces in the mobile-app world, with Facebook's WhatsApp, Microsoft's Skype, Snapchat, Tango, and dozens of other messaging and video-chat services available. Also, Intel has had a poor track record trying to spread out from its core chips business -- pulling back from efforts in television, smartphones, and tablets, to name a few. Intel more recently has been pushing into wearable technology, in March acquiring Basis Science, a startup that makes a high-end fitness tracker, and investing in Google Glass rival Recon Instruments last year.

As a way to differentiate in the messaging space, Intel took facial-tracking software it originally developed for a potential real-time video chat service -- like Skype but with avatars instead of real faces -- and repackaged it into the new smartphone messaging app. Using a phone's front-facing camera and microphone, the app records a user's voice, blinks, smiles, and head movements to recreate their faces as an avatar, such as a lion or a devil. After recording a short message, up to 15 seconds, a user can send it to friends within the app itself or share it via text, email, or social media.

Intel also partnered with a handful of brands -- such as Lego, Gumby and Pokey, and the Annoying Orange of YouTube fame -- to offer up more than 40 different avatars. Also, while the app itself is free, some avatars cost 99 cents each to download.

Mike McGuire, a Gartner analyst focused on mobile marketing, said those brand tie-ins could be profitable for Intel, as more brands look for ways to directly communicate with consumers.

Pocket Avatars is still a starting point for what is possible with the facial-tracking software, Bell said, adding that the "math behind this is scary."

"The fundamental technology has a lot of applications," he said, though he declined to say what else Intel is planning for the software.