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Darwin uses Microsoft's Merlin magic

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Saatchi & Saatchi hopes Microsoft Agent can sell Hewlett-Packard Co. computers and give its interactive unit a leading role in Silicon Valley marketing.

Using new Microsoft Corp. technology, HP's interactive agency, Saatchi & Saatchi unit Darwin Digital, San Francisco, launched a mini-site on March 2 to push HP's 620LX palmtop computer to corporate computer managers.

The new Microsoft Agent software offers an animated guide named Merlin, which looks like a wizard, and two other standard components -- Genie, which looks like a genie, and Robby, which looks like a robot.

Getting the pitch

Banner ads at sites used by information technology managers, such as ZDNet and CNET, draw users to the sales site, where they can download a 3 megabyte file that delivers the pitch.

But only users of Microsoft Internet Explorer Version 3.0 or higher, will see Merlin, says Darwin Digital Creative Director Steve DiPaola. Netscape users will get a Java-driven balloon-type help system. Mr. DiPaola estimates 70% of HP's target audience can access the Web with Explorer.

Before launching Merlin, Mr. DiPaola measured the technology against the target audience.

For most users, downloading a 3 megabyte file to get a sales pitch might be asking a lot, but that's not true for computer managers.

"They may not have the fastest machine, but they tend to have fast lines," he says.

The Microsoft Agent technology is descended from helpers used in Office 97 and, before that, Microsoft's failed Bob product and its successful Creative Writer and Creative Artist programs for kids.

On the Web, Merlin is an animated character that makes eye contact, responds directly to questions and addresses users by name, Mr. DiPaola says, "so naturally people will watch it longer. Typically with a new technology, there's a certain buzz factor that works within a demographic. If someone finds something neat they tell others."

To create Merlin, Mr. DiPaola's team spent a month writing commands in Microsoft's VB Script to create what is, technically, an ActiveX Control.

Simple commands

The main commands were fairly simple, he says, like "agent speak," "agent move" and "agent play."

Merlin and its program were then linked to a palmtop multimedia presentation, which was built with Macromedia's Flash II software through a sequencing control, also written in VB Script.

Once the agent file is downloaded, it acts as a conversational interface that uses a cookie file to get the user's name and time of day from their local computer.

"It's all local, so you download the whole page and it accesses the local clock," says Mr. DiPaola.

Despite its complexity, the new site took just a month to program, he adds, comparable to the time it would have taken to create a banner ad campaign.

Tough job

The agent has a tough job, says HP Advertising Manager Steve Weeks.

The 620LX uses Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and fits inside a coat pocket. It's popular with salespeople, but Mr. Weeks says many IT managers don't know what a palmtop is or its possible uses.

"We wanted to demonstrate this is a business tool," he says.

That meant first getting the attention of IT managers, which is where Merlin comes in. It's 3 inches tall on most computer screens, its words are heard through the PC speakers and they're lip-synched to the character.

"He can gesture at the product, he can move from place to place on the screen and he's timed to the animation," says Mr. DiPaola. He also supports speech recognition, "so if you have a microphone, you can talk with him."

To turn viewers into buyers, there's a product giveaway, which acts as a registration form for follow-up, Mr. DiPaola says.

"The big revolution will happen when we tie the conversational interface with the database on the back end," he says, when agents can take users to the Internet and help them query corporate databases.

That day will come soon, he concludes.

Within a few years, Mr. DiPaola estimates, support for software agents will be a standard feature of Windows 98 machines running any browser.

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