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How Born Digital merged AI with a real-life human to bring a personable touch back to tech

Born Digital has worked on user interface design for digital platforms like websites, kiosks, mobile and digital signage for over 11 years now, but its digital greeter is its first venture into the AI space.

Managing director Brett Hancock says though it was the company’s first time dabbling in this kind of tech, the team found it was actually quite simple to manoeuvre.

“It was way more straightforward than we thought it would be,” Hancock says. “We thought it might be a bit tricky, but it’s been relatively easy so far.”

The digital greeter uses live video analysis to play a number of pre-recorded videos of a real-life woman to viewers, based on what it hears or sees.

The tech components of it are made up of a LG Transparent TV screen, a small PC, a depth camera and mic and software that uses facial and voice recognition APIs from Microsoft.

People can walk up to it and ask simple questions like ‘Where is the toilet’ and receive a video response. If someone visits the screen more than once, it will recognise their face and say “Welcome back, nice to see you both again.”

The idea behind the digital greeter is a replacement for low-effort meet-and-greet jobs in the reception area of a business, at an airport lounge or at a tradeshow or expo.

“We thought, why don’t we build a digital avatar to replace the person in those situations,” Hancock says.

The initial idea was to have a live 3D avatar, but Hancock and his team soon discovered that although there are some good things coming soon in the live 3D avatar space, nothing beats all the subtle non-verbal communication and emotion that comes with using an actual human being.

“I spoke to the guys at LG and we came up with this idea of, ‘Why don’t we put an actual human inside the transparent television that’ll look and feel real?’” Hancock says.

“What we’ve end up building is a 55-inch portrait mounted TV, shot video of a real person. When you come and stand up close to the screen, the video you’re seeing is a 100 percent true-scale proposition, so it feels more real like as she’s a real person. It has a real cool factor.”

“Having this on a transparent panel that lets you see if someone walks behind the actor in the greeter just makes it seem even more real.”

When no people are detected within one to two metres of the greeter, the ‘idle mode’ video loop plays where the greeter will reach into her pocket to check a text or scratch her head, making her more lifelike. 

There also a second idle mode loop where the actor walks onto screen pushing the logo that was there away.

At the moment, there are about 15 different video responses on hand she responds to people with.

However, Hancock says as many video responses as required could be recorded and loaded, so it could become a more complex greeting system if it needed to be.

But he says the point of the digital greeter isn’t just to create more tech to replace human roles.

Already, Hancock says he’s been seeing technology take over these jobs, but in a far colder, human-less sort of way.

He gives the example of a medical practice he visited recently that had no receptionist and just a touch screen.

“What I want to do is bring some life and emotion to it,” he says.

“I could see this replacing the need to sign in at corporate receptions via an iPad and being replaced with a human element, like a 3D or video avatar with facial recognition that notifies the person you know it’s going to see, and even connectivity to a corporate calendar.

“It could also get even more advanced and could have an automatic door opening systems based on who they’re seeing.

We can easily create an AI library that has answers to the most commonly asked questions and creates a real database of language that a receptionist deals with a typical day.”

Hancock says one day, New Zealand based AI company Soul Machines might make their incredibly realistic 3D avatar tech available to other companies and they can branch into creating avatars.

“That’s when we could make a realistic, talking avatar that smiles and has social non-verbal queues in it communicates. But for now, what we’re doing at the moment is fairly simple but it looks really good because it is a real person,” Hancock says.

Find out more about the Born Digital digital greeter on its website here.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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