When I opened my e-mail the other day, a blond woman named Rachel appeared on my computer screen. She greeted me by name and started talking with great enthusiasm. Every now and then she stopped to smile at me or blow a kiss. I guess it detracts from the overall picture to say that the e-mail she was reading to me came from my brother. And that a lot of it was about the trouble he was having getting the phone company to install his high-speed Internet hookup. Still, it was pretty cool.
Rachel was there thanks to a new technology called Facemail. Facemail lets you send e-mail that gets read to the recipient by an attractive male or female form or by a devil or a clown. The software, which is free, can be downloaded at www.facemail.com and you can choose the face from an array. If Facemail catches on--yes, I'd have to say that's still an if--it could change e-mail as we know it.
The basic idea is pretty clever. The Facemail people have taken biologically based imaging--the same technology that creates models of human organs for surgeons to practice on--and used it to create digital faces. Facemail faces are lifelike, in a Max Headroom-ish kind of way, and they simulate emotions based on the emoticons--for example, :-)--that you put in your text. Type in :-X, and Rachel blows a kiss. Type in I-P, and she looks disgusted. The voice reading the e-mail is standard-issue IBM ViaVoice text-to-speech.
And Facemail is about to get a lot more interesting. In a few weeks you will be able to speak into a microphone in your computer and have your own voice read the e-mail you send. The company has signed a deal with Kodak so that sometime next year you will be able to submit a photo and your own face will be the one reading your e-mail.
The main thing Facemail has going for it right now is that it's fun. That's no surprise, since the company's CEO is Lucie Salhany, founder of UPN and former head of Fox Broadcasting. As its new capabilities kick in, Facemail could become a lot more popular. After all, what grandparent wouldn't prefer e-mail with the voice and image of a grandchild instead of coldly impersonal text?
Lifefx, the Newton, Mass., start-up that produces Facemail, is convinced there are broad commercial applications. One reason e-commerce is floundering, the company says, is that buying over the Internet lacks the human touch. But what if you went to the Nike website and Michael Jordan greeted you by name, waited on you and personally closed the sale? The company is also talking about using Facemail to make greeting cards and living wedding albums. And it is negotiating with Whirlpool about embedding the technology in a computer screen on a fridge. Then if Mom can't be home when the kids get back from school, she can leave a note with voice and image telling them what there is to eat.
Facemail could get hot fast. Then again it could end up as yet another technological breakthrough in search of a problem. (Remember all that talk just a few years back about how videoconferencing was going to sweep the business world?) Personally, I'm a fan. But Facemail should be used with a certain amount of caution. The clown looks awfully cute at first. But if you select the clown, put a few snippy words in an e-mail and add some angry emoticons, you've got Psycho-mail.