IM gets a brand-new face - and it's yours

Your IM may soon appear as your own head talking, thanks to new client software developed in Australia
Written by Stephen Withers, Contributor

It's become one of the Internet's most-used tools, and now Instant Messenger has been given a face thanks to Impersona, innovative new client software developed by Melbourne-based Blaze International.

Unlike bandwidth-intensive video streaming techniques, IMpersona uses the power of the PC to animate a realistic 3D model of a face that speaks the message, and therefore even works over a 28.8K modem connection.

Incoming messages are converted to audio by Microsoft's text-to-speech engine, and facial movements are synchronised with the voice. The face fidgets slightly when it isn't speaking, making it seem more lifelike.

The free software comes with a selection of photorealistic and fantasy faces, but Blaze plans to sell a program that constructs a 3D model from a digitised pair of full-face and profile photographs so your buddies can see you as you are.

Other revenue opportunities include sponsored faces, and advertising displayed onscreen by IMpersona. Blaze may resell another company's high quality text-to-speech software as an enhancement.

On the commercial side, companies could use IMpersona to enhance their branding when handling online enquiries through instant messaging. This would be especially attractive to businesses such as AAMI that already use a corporate face.

Even if MSN Messenger users don't want the speech and animation features, they may use IMpersona anyway: "We think it's a better client interface for MSN Messenger," said Dan Sullivan, director of business development and strategic alliances, referring to features such as the buttons that generate common emoticons. IMpersona faces respond to incoming emoticons with the appropriate expressions.

Versions for AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger are planned.

The software is based on the company's facial animation technology, which has been used in the creation of movies such as the soon to be released Lord of the Rings, animated TV series such as Max Steel, and games including Star Trek Armada and Microsoft's forthcoming Bruce Lee title for Xbox.

The technology is also used in Web sites for 'talking head' situations where pages of text do not keep the user's attention and bandwidth issues rule out streaming video. A number of e-learning providers are considering its use.

Blaze believes facial animation has potential for wireless applications because of its low bandwidth requirement, but is awaiting the emergence of a widely accepted platform. However, a recent trial conducted with Ericsson using a Compaq iPaq and a GPRS connection achieved 15 frames per second animation.

"We've got a low-cost development base in Melbourne, and some really smart people in the back room," said sales and marketing director Zac Jacobs.

"[IMpersona] is a springboard for greater recognition of our facial animation tools."

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