Geppetto Avatars Melds Emotion of Disney, Smarts of KITT

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whether or not Geppetto’s initial applications for its platform hold promise as a viable business, Palmer says. He likes what the startup is trying to accomplish, but wonders if its aspirations are too lofty, at least for the initial product. His advice is to follow a strategy similar to Affectiva, which picked a simple and practical objective—measuring people’s “emotional connection” with advertisements, brands, and media—and is building the business around it, he says.

“Things that feel real exciting but aspirational may not be the best thing for you to start a company [and] get off the ground. Things that are very pragmatic may go a much longer way,” Palmer says. “Maybe [Geppetto has] cracked the code, but it’s a very hard thing when you’re on the cutting edge the way these guys are.”

Daroga admits the company must not bite off more than it can chew in the early stages.

“If we start chasing the asthma app and sit down and try to build 22 apps and have no client for them, it’ll kill us,” Daroga says. “We’ve tried to figure out how do we stay on course. The diversification of opportunities is both an opportunity to reduce risk, but is also one to lose focus.”

Geppetto has 10 staff, along with about 20 scientific advisors and contract workers around the globe, Daroga says. They include 3D animators in Argentina, voiceover actors in Los Angeles, and an expert in Germany working on technology that helps the avatar perceive emotion from facial expressions. (That last project is one of the difficult but vital facets of Geppetto’s platform that still needs to be finished before the product can hit the market, Daroga says.) Another challenge for the team is designing avatars that find the sweet spot between appearing too “whimsical” to take seriously and so human-like that they’re “creepy,” Daroga says.

Geppetto has four pending patents and four provisional patents covering avatar technology developed by Meadows and his team at HeadCase Humanufacturing, a now-defunct L.A. company, Daroga says. (Meadows, who lives in the Bay Area, is an artist who has founded three companies and worked in design labs at Xerox-owned PARC, SRI International, and the Waag Society. Daroga, who moved from India to the U.S. at age 16, is a mechanical engineer and attorney who has spent more than three decades in business leadership, including as chief administrative officer for Milwaukee-based Metavante Technologies. He left Metavante in 2008, a year after the company went public and two years before it was acquired by Fidelity National Information Services.)

Even if Geppetto’s business model works, it still must compete with giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Nuance that are developing products or snatching up companies with technologies like those on Geppetto’s platform. “The odds are always against you,” Palmer says. But the market for this type of technology is still a wide-open frontier, he adds. “The script hasn’t been written yet for how these kinds of [platforms] are going to make it in the market and be used effectively.”

The company’s ultimate success may turn on whether Geppetto can deliver on its promise to create virtual characters that humans can relate to. Studies show that people often open up to a virtual character, and almost develop a form of companionship. That’s especially likely to happen with a friendly-looking avatar as compared with speaking to a bodiless voice or typing sentences into a text box. Daroga points to research into the potential for virtual characters to interact with lonely elderly people and in therapy for soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“A human being asks them, they say, ‘I’m fine,’” Daroga says. “They talk to an avatar and they talk about all their fears, all the stuff they can’t tell their commanding officer. And now you’re able to help them. The avatar is nonthreatening; it’s not judgmental.”

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