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Bringing Training to Life with Avatars

Author: Tom Atkins

Date Created: October 17th 2006
Last Updated: June 14th 2012

Tom AtkinsTom Atkins was educated as achemical engineer, obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his Master of Science degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked in aerospace for several years before moving into software design.

Having lived on both coasts, Tom settled in Colorado in the early 70’s, and in Golden in 1993. He has developed computer software applications for more than thirty years, specializing in the APL language. Tom has served as chairman of the Jefferson County Library Board of Trustees. He and his wife Alice are very much “new urbanists”, operating their business out of a carriage house Tom built behind their home in downtown Golden. They enjoy walking to lunch, the post office, and shops in their adopted home town.






Introduction

Let’s face it: long presentations can be boring, and you can lose your audience in less time than it takes to click to the next slide. Corporate trainers and salespeople are now discovering that they can sustain attention -- and ensure a higher content retention level -- by using animated characters called avatars that talk, sing, dance, gesture, tell jokes and generally liven up the proceedings.

Avatars can introduce the presenter (or BE the trainer), advance slides, demonstrate products, have interactive “conversations” with the audience, and even exhibit a personality. A character can behave in a skeptical manner, for example, raising questions about what the presenter is saying while simultaneously serving as a foil allowing the presenter to counter issues in Mutt-and-Jeff fashion.

Research is proving the value of these strategies. Studies show that avatar technology not only draws people in, but also increases their ability to retain the information included in the presentation. People seem to have confidence in these human simulacra because they can provide familiar conversational signals and feedback.

For the same reason, many companies are finding that avatars provide viewers with new ways to identify with products -- something that advertisers learned long ago when they began employing cartoon characters on TV commercials.

“Automated characters take advantage of social responses that are natural reactions to interactive media,” writes Byron Reeves of Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information. “They can be perceived as realistic and well-liked social partners in conversations that simulate real-world interactions.”

Avatars have also proven useful in academic lectures, according to a study conducted by Clive Chandler of Staffordshire University. “Students found the lecture more enjoyable than a ‘normal’ lecture and felt that they were less ‘talked at’ and more ‘involved’ than in other lecturing styles,” Dr. Chandler notes.


VIP Adopters

Most people were first exposed to avatars through Clippy, the animated paper clip character who used to appear automatically in Microsoft® Office® as soon as users began composing a fax or a letter or asked for help. While Clippy eventually became so annoying that Microsoft put him out to pasture, that character and others like Einstein paved the way for development of today’s avatar technology.

As a result, avatars are now showing up in settings ranging from presentations and educational seminars to training sessions and sales demonstrations. Some are pricey inventions created by custom developers, while others are more affordable stock or custom characters available as add-ons to Microsoft PowerPoint® presentations.

SBC Communications, along with computer products merchant CDW, recently gained attention in the Wall Street Journal for training staff with avatar technology. The same article reported that companies like McDonalds and Coca-Cola are using avatars mainly in online advertising campaigns. All of these virtual characters have been custom-built into proprietary software programs.

At United Airlines, on the other hand, the training coordinator of the Hazardous Materials Transportation Safety Unit has used a friendly-looking car salesman-type character named Chuck, an avatar in Vox Proxy®, 3D talking animated characters for PowerPoint, from Right Seat Software, Inc. Chuck and other such characters readily available on the web, require a scripting interface to work with PowerPoint, and is more cost effective means of accomplishing the same outcomes than higher-cost, custom solutions.


Wide Range of Uses

Avatars are infinitely adaptable, and that is another reason for their growing popularity.

Training is a major use, and not just for big businesses like SBC and United. Security Finance, a financial and loan services company in Spartanburg, S.C., used Vox Proxy for a customer service training presentation and got rave reviews from participants. A key reason for the usefulness of avatars in training environments is that they offer a quasi-human touch that is missing from typical computer-based training and thereby restore some of the appeal of more expensive instructor-led courses. Another is that the avatar “coach” delivers a more consistent message than a human trainer while simultaneously being able to combine the collective knowledge and experience of multiple trainers.

Using Vox Proxy CD Prep Edition, a sales representative who cannot meet with a client personally can send an interactive CD containing the sales content, and the avatar can act as a proxy for the sales rep. At a busy trade show staffed by a single salesperson, the sales rep can run a presentation with avatars demonstrating the main features of the product. The sales rep can then concentrate on answering questions and engaging in one-on-one personal interactions with sales prospects while the avatar continues to demonstrate the product to the majority of curious booth visitors.

At open house meetings of municipal government bodies, where members of the local community come to hear information about new road projects or civic construction projects, engineering companies can use Vox Proxy to help make their presentations more understandable, while the professionals are available to respond to questions.

In short, avatars open a whole new world for trainers and presenters. If you want to get your message across and keep your audience awake, take a page from Disney. Animated characters will be a hit every time.


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