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Empathetic customer experiences: The next big step for marketing

Since the early days of the internet, technologists have been fascinated by the idea of the metaverse — the shared universe that all virtual worlds inhabit. Three decades of progress later, the concept is making its way into the mainstream, and the marketplace is catching on. Brands are relying on more advanced technology to improve their business, turning to artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand and reach their audiences. 

Recognizing the potential for AI to transform consumer experiences and storytelling, Soul Machines — a San Francisco based firm that specializes in humanizing AI — began developing Digital People that can interface with customers naturally and responsively. At the heart of their work is the idea of empathy. As the world grows increasingly digital and depersonalized, empathetic experiences matter — and the businesses that tap into such connections have the most to gain.

Humanizing digital interactions

Soul Machines got its start bringing humans to life. The founding duo — a seasoned tech entrepreneur and an academic researcher known for his Oscar-winning, lifelike animations in Hollywood films — connected over autonomous animation. They brought together neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and biomechanical engineers to push the boundaries of what digital avatars can do, particularly in a world where consumers are transacting with brands remotely, from cashless banking to online shopping. “The digital media landscape has changed tremendously in the last couple of decades,” said Soul Machines co-founder Greg Cross. “Brands are looking for new ways to connect. The big challenge for any company is how to build those brand connections.”

As the Soul Machines team sees it, the key to forging brand relationships is through their Human OS 2.0 platform, which gives brands the ability to create Digital People, CGI characters powered by AI, that can interact with consumers in real-time. “[Digital People] might be able to help in a completely natural, interactive, entertaining and fun experience,” Cross explained. So far, the start-up’s efforts are paying off: They’ve attracted a clientele that includes some of the largest consumer brands in the world, from Nestle to Procter and Gamble.

Digital People that learn and react to customers

What makes Soul Machines’ Digital People unique is their intelligence. Unlike typical automated customer service chatbots — and holographic entertainers that rely on pre-recorded and pre-scripted content — they’re completely autonomous. Behind them is a Digital Brain — a patented technology that combines neural networks and biological models to synthesize the capabilities of a human brain. They have the ability to learn and react to consumers.

When a customer talks to a Soul Machines avatar, the avatar sees and hears the customer in real-time through the customer’s microphone and webcam. It reacts to the customer’s words and body language — and learns from the interaction to tailor the experience to the user.

The technology makes for an empathetic, approachable, and personalized customer experience, without the anxiety that can accompany encounters with humans. “People often prefer to speak to a digital person [in a brand interaction setting] because there is no judgment involved in the experience,” Cross said. It’s also continuously being improved. Recently, Cross said, the company released an update that helps Digital People recognize which items on a screen the customer is interested in.

The power to embody any brand

Every brand has different values, and a different personality. Accordingly, the Human OS 2.0 platform contains a user-friendly interface that allows companies to create and fine-tune a Digital Person that perfectly embodies their brand. Users can use the Digital DNA Studio to fully customize the physical features of their avatars, from skin tone down to bone structures.

Underneath the physical characteristics of its avatars, Soul Machines has used a large corpus of texts and natural language processing technology to give Digital People the knowledge and language skills to represent any type of brand. They can speak in various languages, with nuanced accents. “They can remember previous experiences of interacting with you, and having memories of the type of personality that you have, they can adjust their personality,” Cross said. The success of the avatars is bearing out in key customer data points like NPS scores, Engagement length, Conversion rates etc 

In 2019, Soul Machines created the first autonomously animated digital influencer for a premium Japanese beauty and cosmetic brand. This digital brand ambassador provides skincare advice and makes product recommendations specific to each customer. The company was looking for ways to make their brand more relevant and accessible to young women — a key market. “When the avatar went live in the company’s online store, conversion went through the roof because they could talk to a digital person about their skincare regime, in a way that is both friendly and non-judgemental” Cross said.

Into the metaversal future

Imagined at scale, the potential for Digital People is transformative. Because they live in the cloud, the avatars are infinitely scalable. A Digital Person can talk to thousands of customers simultaneously, with each customer enjoying their own personalized and empathetic experience. It can happen at any time of day, in a safe and immersive environment.

As the metaverse expands and becomes more relevant to everyday life, the company sees its pioneering research as becoming integral to marketing and helping brands connect to their bases. “This new technology becomes an incredibly valuable asset for the future,” Cross said. “Digital People will have meaningful use cases in every single industry.”

Be sure to check out Greg Cross’ session Humanizing AI: How Brands are Revolutionizing Customer Experience in an Increasingly Digital World at Disrupt on September 21 at 2:25pm PT.