Santa's Making a List … And Gathering Data Meanwhile

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Extempo Systems Inc., which introduces a virtual Santa Claus this month designed to "converse" with visitors at e-commerce sites, said its cyber-St. Nick can smooth-talk prospective customers into handing over personal information.


Like a few other "Imps" made by the software company, Extempo's Santa can be programmed to ask consumers their names, contact information and - most importantly for Web merchants - what they want for Christmas. That data can be instantly integrated into e-commerce sites' customer profile databases.


"Santa can remember whatever you want him to remember," said Jim Yeakel, national sales manager at Extempo, Redwood City, CA. "It depends on what the role of the character is and what our customer needs to find out."


Santa is slated to begin running on client Web sites in mid-November, Yeakel said, though he would not disclose the names of the sites. The product marks Extempo's first foray into the consumer marketplace with a preset interactive character. Other Imps are operational and scheduled to go live with "a number of major corporations," but Extempo is still in talks and can't discuss details, Yeakel said. He added that one or more of the corporations have existing "branded characters" they want brought to life on their commerce sites.


Extempo characters are authored by the firm or client sites to remember how to respond to various messages that people enter via a chat box. Animated characters use facial expressions and body gestures appropriate to the conversation. A single character can remember up to 3,000 lines of dialogue; the characters are designed to respond as smoothly as possible to inquiries they don't understand. For example, template spokeswoman character "Jennifer James," who exists in a three-dimensional pop-up window at www.extempo.com, is designed to simply turn and walk away if a cybercitizen poses any vulgar or off-color questions.


The Imps aren't perfect. More complex characters require a plug-in. Simpler ones might not be able to handle complicated conversation. Online community www.peopleweb.com has an unanimated interactive element powered by Extempo that can understand only simple commands or questions. When asked by DM News if it was a real person, the "Web Assistant" eventually linked over to the Ask Jeeves search engine to handle the question.


Yeakel said the Imps can be improved over time. The characters will go through initial online testing; later they will assume regular duties on the sites. Regardless, Extempo believes the Imps will prove better at gathering consumer data than normal registration pages.
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