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Virtual presidential candidate steps up to podium

A foreign company elects to attract U.S. Web surfers by adding a virtual character to the race for U.S. presidency.

3 min read
A foreign company has elected to attract U.S. Web surfers by adding a virtual character to the race for U.S. presidency.

The virtual candidate, Jackie Strike, is the latest example of Web companies enlisting 3D animated figures to make product pitches, talk politics, and read the news.

A Hamburg, Germany-based company developed Jackie, who offers her perspectives on campaign issues and responds directly to individuals' questions 24 hours a day.

"We're trying to make a political portal that makes politics entertaining," said Chris Goold, president of Jackie for President.

The site was created through a joint venture of Boettcher Hinrichs, Webpilots and NoDNA. Goold said each company has invested its own funds to create Jackie. Boettcher Hinrichs has also used its technology to let Jackie cite speeches through the "Phrasemonger," a database comprised of speeches from political figures such as George Bush, Al Gore, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

In addition, a chat function from Kiwilogic.com recognizes certain words and lets Jackie respond to people on issues ranging from health care to taxes. Software developed by NoDNA provides the plug-in that controls the virtual character's movements.

Some analysts are skeptical, saying that such virtual characters are merely marketing stunts.

"It's silly," said Forrester Research analyst Jay Stanley. "It doesn't have any usefulness...It just seems like a useless gimmick."

Stanley said that when he attempted to engage in a conversation about the issue of gun control with Jackie, the chat function didn't work well and it took four attempts to converse with the character.

"I think this is a good idea, but it's ahead of its time," Stanley said. "The technology is not there yet."

Other analysts, however, said that Jackie may be on time to the party.

"These various kinds of applications have been tried for several years, but the opportunity is higher now," said analyst Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a research firm specializing in interactive media. "The quality is more interesting, and I believe it's tied to higher connection speeds.

"Some people may be negative about interacting with a machine, but if it's an appropriate application, you get a virtual relationship...It's a great opportunity."

Jackie is not alone in her virtual world. United Kingdom-based Ananova uses a virtual character, also named Ananova, to deliver real-time news. In addition, viewers can suggest questions for interviews with celebrities, such as singer Kylie Minogue. The best questions are then used in Ananova's interviews.

"Ananova is sort of clever," Arlen said. "You're watching a news anchor with an edge...It's what you expect, and it's an appropriate way to get news from a newscaster."

Another British company, fashion site Boo.com, had used a virtual character, Miss Boo, for personalized shopping. The company, which shut down in May and was acquired by Fashionmall.com in June, has been struggling to reinvent itself. It expects to open its doors again in a couple of months--and put the "cheeky" Miss Boo back online.

Lisa Marsh, spokeswoman for Boo.com, would not disclose how the site will use Miss Boo or how it will be formatted.