Geppetto Avatars Melds Emotion of Disney, Smarts of KITT

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long been fascinated with the idea of virtual companions or computers that can “think” and hold meaningful conversations with humans, from the HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to KITT in “Knight Rider,” and more recently with Tony Stark’s Jarvis and Samantha in “Her.”

Those fictions have been inching ever closer to reality in the past few years with intuitive Q&A systems like Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson. And over the past couple of decades, tech companies have worked toward creating avatars with the sophistication of a KITT or Jarvis. Some companies have seen commercial success building interactive virtual assistants that provide online customer service for clients in sectors like health insurance, the airline industry, and antivirus software, including WA-based Next IT and CA-based VirtuOz, which was acquired last year by Burlington, MA-based Nuance.

But Geppetto goes a crucial step beyond all the current offerings, according to Daroga, by giving its avatars the ability to detect emotion and respond differently based on the user’s mood.

“If I walk in and say good morning to my assistant and I’m gruff, her response will be different. No avatar can do that today,” Daroga says. But Geppetto’s avatars will, he adds.

How? Part of the answer lies in a combination of several software technologies—artificial intelligence, data analytics, natural language processing and voice-to-text translation that allow the avatar to understand human speech, and a facial recognition program to help the avatar read a person’s mood. Geppetto has developed its own voice-to-text module from scratch and created proprietary natural language processing and artificial intelligence programs using open source code. “I won’t be able to compete with somebody who focuses on voice-to-text or AI or just one of those things,” Daroga says. “I’m taking the best I can of all of those technologies…using them in ways that people haven’t done.”

More importantly, though, Geppetto is augmenting those technologies with art, storytelling, and psychology. The handful of anthropologists and sociologists the company has hired are just as crucial to its goals as the software developers and graphic designers, Daroga says, in the same way that Disney’s team needed expert storytellers in addition to animators. “There is a certain charm to it that you need to be able to build into it,” says Daroga. “There’s an art to this; it’s not just science, and that’s what’s great.”

But will science and art translate into sales? What Geppetto is trying to accomplish with computer programs that can interpret and respond to human emotion is a well-researched topic, but there haven’t been many examples of commercial success in this area, says Andy Palmer, a Boston serial entrepreneur who founded Koa Labs in Cambridge, MA, and has advised Affectiva, a Waltham, MA-based company that built facial recognition software to analyze people’s emotional responses to online videos.

“That’s the real challenge” for Geppetto, Palmer says. “What are the commercial applications that are going to be the most compelling over the next 10 years that are going to have the basic economic fuel to drive a significant company that can do dramatic things?”

Geppetto’s business model is to sell monthly subscriptions to the avatar platform, which will be launched this year. Daroga anticipates considerable interest, including among insurance companies and hospitals that are under increased pressure to reduce 30-day readmissions and cut costs under the Affordable Care Act, and pharmaceutical companies that could benefit from more clinical trial data and the revenue they’ll earn as a result of faster diagnoses of rare diseases. Geppetto is in talks with interested pharmaceutical companies, Daroga says, and has already formed a partnership with New York-based Evidence-Based Solutions and signed up some early customers, including Milwaukee-based TCARE Navigator (a startup Daroga also helms). [An earlier version of this paragraph mistakenly called Evidence-Based Solutions a customer, when it is in fact a business partner. We regret the error.]

Geppetto is also looking for investors. The company has raised $500,000 in seed money from family and friends, says Daroga, who has invested in the company. It’s now seeking between $5 million and $10 million for a Series A funding round.

The key question for potential investors is … Next Page »

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