Frosting, Engage, Alt.English.Usage, and Virtual Spokesmodels

(Originally published in ClickZ, April 1, 2002) by Eric Picard

An acquaintance of mine told me a story about her mother, who made a living baking high-end wedding cakes from her home. She baked at least two wedding cakes a week and ended up with a lot of “cake scraps,” which were described to me as delicious cake-crusts about three-quarters of an inch thick. And, of course, there were always containers of some fabulous butter cream or cream cheese frostings. This woman grew up with a nearly endless supply of amazingly delicious cake sandwiches (two cake scraps with frosting in the middle).

This week’s column will be a little like that. Frequently, I have story ideas that don’t quite make up a full column’s worth of discussion. Sometimes I hold onto them and am able to combine a few into a cohesive story — but this time I’m not even going to try. So, enough explanation. Here are some interesting, and hopefully delectable, tidbits for you to savor and digest slowly with a big glass of milk. (Boy, is it going to be hard to live up to this opener!)

Did Anyone Know Engage Is Still in the Ad-Serving Business?

About a month ago, I sat in on a meeting with a team from Engage to get an update on the current state of their business. Most of my readers know Engage well enough — a high-flying CMGI company that was deeply affected by the burst of the Internet bubble. It went through a string of layoffs as the company tried to reshuffle its products and offerings while reducing costs and sorting itself out.

Originally formed by CMGI through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Engage included assets from (among others) the original Engage, Accipiter, Flycast, Adsmart, Ad Knowledge, and MediaBridge. Last fall, as Engage was quickly divesting itself of business entities, offices, and personnel, Bluestreak (the company I cofounded) acquired the Ad Knowledge assets. Flycast and the rest of the company’s media business have been shed, and Engage has recast itself as a software company. Considering that a new, outstanding CEO is at the helm and (dare I say it) that the company’s actually hiring, some interesting times may be ahead.

So, what is Engage doing these days? I have to admit that I was completely out of the loop. As I mentioned above, Engage exited the media business — but it didn’t exit the ad-serving business. Though it does have a few other offerings, it turns out that the AdManager and AdBureau products are doing very well and posting record growth. Many customers stayed with Engage for the company’s site-side ad-serving business, and Engage has continued to build its customer base.

This was almost shocking to me, given that I follow this space as well as anyone and Engage had managed to remain below my radar. Things had looked very clear-cut to me; with the consolidation in the industry, it seemed like we were really looking at a very limited field made up of DoubleClick, 24/7 Real Media, and a handful of other players. That perception has shifted for me over the past few weeks. Engage looks ready to burst back onto the scene with its product offering more clearly and simply defined than ever. And I’ve been hearing rumblings of a number of other offerings about to enter the market as well, but I don’t have a lot of details on them yet.

Lingo Schmingo, English Schminglish

Another ClickZ columnist, who will go unnamed (hint: He shares this column with me), forwarded a disparaging flamemail from a disgruntled member of the alt.english.usage newsgroup. This person’s email was something to the effect of, “Where on earth did you learn English, and who gave you permission to murder it? ‘Creative’ and ‘metric’ are adjectives, not bloody nouns!”

Now, aside from the fact that the poster’s email address was on the risque side (and appeared to be spoofed), there was something so very wrong about this email and the associated newsgroup postings that I had to mention it in this forum. Apparently Jeremy’s column last week (oops, now I’ve done it) so infuriated some members of that newsgroup they had a long conversation about the fact that “journalists” in our field use too much lingo and bad English (never mind that we’re not journalists, but practitioners).

I have to laugh at the idea of either Jeremy or me being used as “global” illustrations of journalism or our articles being used to illustrate that “bad English” is killing our culture or some such nonsense (although it is a welcome departure from a more appropriate debate about advertising killing our culture). It really seemed to bother them that Jeremy used the term “creative” as a noun — which makes our entire industry guilty as sin, I suppose. I think I’ll start using “creative” as a verb in my next few articles and see if I can get this character to blow a wing nut. Maybe I can creative him with a few metrics of my own.

Virtual All Over Again

In a former life, I built glorious virtual reality worlds filled with high-end graphics that took ultra- expensive computers to run. It was a lot of fun, and I’ve been addicted to the world of 3-D graphics since. But I got very tired of building stuff that could only be viewed on $100,000-plus computers — hence my shift to the Web.

These days, I look out for any potential technologies that promise to bring interesting 3-D applications to the Web, and there finally seems to be some hope of that happening (years after the death of VRML). Sure, there are the established players, such as Viewpoint, but some smaller companies have recently entered the market with specific-use 3-D applications.

Last week I had an enlightening conversation with Dennis Crane, CEO of LifeFX. These folks have built a very interesting technology that puts a “virtual spokesmodel” onto a Web page. I’ve seen applications like this before, but what is interesting about LifeFX is that it has the most mature of the offerings I’ve seen.

The company uses an advanced system for modeling human physiology, and it draws on research about the way facial expressions enhance communication. The idea in a nutshell: auto- generate a 3-D replica of the model’s face from a photograph of a human face. Then take audio messages and synch the moving of the model to the playing of the message. The result is a compelling virtual presentation that can be tweaked to add any kind of emotional edge to the message that you’d like. Want a sympathetic user response? Have the model act in such a way to elicit that response. Want an excited user who is ready to act? Well, you get the picture…

Of course, there are obvious uses, such as putting a virtual salesperson right in front of visitors, but the company has also done some pretty advanced integration with database-driven applications and voice generation — basically building interactive “human” conversationalists.

Let’s all go out and creative our industry metrics higher, shall we?


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