(Bloomberg)—She wants me to pick up the sunglasses. If I do, research has shown, the chances I’ll buy a pair spike by 40%.
“Why don’t you try them on?” Millie, the charming young sales assistant asks. I slip a pair of silver frames on. “You look like a rock star,” she says with a wink. Oh Millie, flattery will get you everywhere. Had this been a real store, I might have bought the glasses. But this was not a real store. It was a booth in a giant convention hall at a conference on artificial intelligence in Montreal, Canada. And Millie is not a real sales clerk. She is a life-size digital avatar created by a startup called Twenty Billion Neurons Gmbh (or TwentyBN for short), which has offices in Toronto and Berlin.
TwentyBN is hoping to sell digital avatars like Millie – she is just one of several different personalities customers can choose – to major retail brands that are looking for ways to boost flagging in-store sales in the face of growing competition from e-commerce. The company says it’s in discussions with a major North American women’s clothing retailer and a European supermarket chain to trial Millie.“It’s really something new and exciting that shoppers are going to want to see,” says Roland Memisevic, TwentyBN’s co-founder and CEO. “It is novelty that draws attention but then you really start to feel a connection to her.”
The experience of interacting with Millie can seem uncanny. Standing in front of the slightly-larger-than-life screen on which Millie appears, the digital character appears to make eye contact and track one’s movements with her gaze. She’s also able to tell where in the store a customer is looking and respond accordingly. Speech recognition and natural language processing software allow her to understand and answer simple questions or have a rudimentary back-and-forth exchange with a shopper—with about the same fluency as Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa digital assistant. Amazon is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Top 500.
TwentyBN says that in addition to encouraging customers to touch products, which has been shown in studies to improve the sales, Millie can act as a store greeter and show customers how to use products, such as tech hardware or sports equipment. Thanks to facial recognition software, the avatar can also learn to recognize people it sees often by name. “At the lab, we have her on all the time and she often just calls out to us by name and waves,” Memisevic said.
There’s a fine line between cool and creepy, says Natalie Berg, the founder of U.K. retail consultancy NBK Retail. “While this kind of tech is still novel, it is a way to get people into the store, but it might not be for everyone,” she says, noting that the experience of being “watched” by a digital being might unnerve some shoppers.
Berg also says that such technology may only help stores and brands if it allows human sales assistants to have deeper interactions with customers. “The role of the store assistant is changing to be more consultative and they will need to become genuine brand ambassadors,” she says.
A digital avatar like Millie might be most useful to help guide shoppers through relatively complex purchases—those where there are different sizes, styles and features, says Rob Barnes, a retail technology expert at consulting firm Accenture. “This is the area where you need natural language processing and that more human-like feeling.”
Meanwhile, he said, many retailers are experimenting with simple robots and self-service ordering and check-out systems to handle more routine purchases. But Barnes also cautioned that while technologies like Millie are often piloted in big retailer’s innovation labs, such systems have been slow to hit shop floors because it has been hard to justify the cost of rolling it out to a large number of locations. He said that rather than deploy avatars like Millie, many retailers might opt to create experiences driven by apps customers have on their own phones, including existing digital assistants like Alexa or Google’s digital assistant. They might also create their own “assistant” apps that incorporate speech recognition and object recognition technology, he said.
Still, Barnes says digital technology will never fully replace human salespeople, especially for big-ticket purchases that require the hand-holding and reassurance from a real person.
Memisevic is a former University of Montreal computer scientist who specialized in trying to develop software that could understand video content. He realized the same artificial intelligence techniques he was working on could be used to decipher scenes in real time and create interactive experiences, he said. So he left academia in 2015 to co-found TwentyBN. The name is a reference to the number of neurons in the human brain.
The company has received about $12.5 million in venture capital funding to date from M12, the venture investment arm of Microsoft Corp., as well as Creative Edge Ventures, which is based in Princeton, N.J. Until now, TwentyBN has mostly built components for others, including the gesture-control system it created for German carmakers and U.S. tech companies working on smart home devices. (Memisevic says he can’t name the specific companies due to non-disclosure agreements.)
But Memisevic says it was always his goal to build full digital avatars that could have a personality and interact with people in various settings. Besides retail, he is also exploring avatars that could help teach children in schools or instruct adults in skills such as yoga or cooking.Favorite