(Jan. 15, 2001)

Hal, the renegade computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey may not become reality this year, but his poor cousins will soon be coming to an in-box near you.

The same technology that allows live, virtual medical operations to be conducted from thousands of miles away has now been adapted to produce the 21st century’s equivalent of the singing telegram.

These rich emails, called “facemail,” use computer-manipulated images of real models to read your email to the recipient.

“It’s clever and cool and will probably appeal to people under 34 initially,” says Jonathan Jackson, senior analyst at eMarketer, a Web research firm. “I’m just trying to find out how viable it is.”

Introduced last month by LifeFX, a Massachusetts-based company, the system was adapted from technology developed in New Zealand to create lifelike virtual organs for use with robotic instruments in long-distance surgery.

“When you’re piercing digital flesh that represents an eyeball, it has to be believable,” says Bill Clausen, chief marketing officer for LifeFX.

Anyone who receives a facemail is unlikely to ever submit to remote-controlled surgery.

“It’s a hoot,” as eMarketer’s Jackson says. But believable, it is not.

No matter the content of the message, the floating, disembodied heads of the avatars, or “stand-in virtual people” as the company calls them, are hard to take seriously.

At this point, there are a half-dozen faces from which the email’s author can choose. Each belongs to a real model. The men and women were put in a studio and asked to make facial expressions meant to represent a range of emotions, from pleasure to anger. The sender of the email can prompt these expressions by inserting the appropriate symbols in the body of the text.

The company’s first task is to find some models who can act. The expressions are, at best, jarring, and at worst, absurd. One model looks like she is impersonating the Bride of Frankenstein when she expresses anger, and as for shock, let’s just say it seems something untoward is going on outside camera range.

The computer-generated voices, meanwhile, make 2001‘s Hal sound like a Shakespearean actor by comparison. So basic is the mechanical monotone that even the word “facemail” comes out “fas-uh-mail”.

The amateur-hour acting and B-movie computer delivery is particularly puzzling given the entertainment industry firepower driving the company. Chairman Michael Rosenblatt was founder of the powerful Atlantic Entertainment Group. CEO Lucille Salhany is the former head of two U.S. television networks, Fox and UPN.

But then the goal is far more than novelty email. LifeFX is one of a number of companies trying to produce the solution to the customer relationship management problems bedeviling many dot-coms.

In short, LifeFX wants its virtual people to be your virtual friends.

“Our greeter on a site can begin a relationship with you — bond with you — to guide you through the user experience,” says LifeFx’s Clausen.

The company also hopes its avatars will act as fronts for customer care operators, offering a visual stand-in, instead of just a disembodied voice.

“It allows the brand to put forward its best face,” says Clausen. And for the customer, “it allows a sense of validation from something human or humanlike.”

“Humanlike isn’t necessarily a quality I’m looking for,” observes Gartner Group analyst Maurene Grey, who also warns that an in-box full of facemail may not be everyone’s idea of how to start the day.

“When is it going to be too much?” she asks of the various forms of rich email surfacing recently. “On one end is the annoyance factor and on the other end is, ‘Gee, this is kinda cool.’ You have to strike a balance.”

The next generation of facemail will include the users’ own voice. Eventually, it will also include his or her face. But there are also some technical hurdles that need to be overcome.

The first time a user receives a facemail, s/he must log onto the LifeFX site and download the driver. When eMarketer’s Jackson received a message from the LifeFX PR people, the company firewall prevented him from downloading the driver. And when this reporter facemailed Gartner’s Grey, she sent back this response: “Holy cow! The download is 7 MB. That’s huge for a plug-in, especially over a dial-up.”

In fact, it took this reporter about 20 minutes to complete the transfer over a non-broadband  home connection. Grey says that could be fatal for an email marketer.

“That’s a major inhibitor that’s going to be very unattractive to the average consumer,” she says. “If I’m asking them to go through a heck of a lot of work right away, I’ve turned them off.”

Still, with the email marketing business expected to hit $4.6 billion by 2003, according to eMarketer, companies like LifeFx and rival text-based CRM solutions — such as the smiliarly-named Facetime instant messaging system, and Alife Ventures, which employs cartoon character avatars in text-based bots — will be locked in battle to be the solution that strikes the best balance between usability and sex appeal.

For the moment, facemail seems have a lock on the latter.

“Think how terrific this is going to be for all those lonely hearts trying to find each other,” says LifeFX’s Clausen.

Indeed. To say nothing of the Internet’s real moneymaker, the porn industry: “It would be a natural,” says Clausen, who adds quickly, “but I don’t want to talk about it.”

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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