Agencies Get in On the Robotic Avatar Craze

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Agencies are spurning standard screen-based communication in favor of something with a little more dazzle, bringing robotic avatars into the branding world.

While robotic avatars -- a loosely defined "robot" that communicates for you remotely -- have popped up on the tech world's radar off and on for a few years now, they can take a variety of different forms. For example, Teroos, developed by researchers at Keio University in Japan, is a microphone and camera that sit on your shoulder, letting you take your faraway friends out shopping with you, while some go a step further, adding a tele-existence angle by letting you control a robot's movements while it communicates with others, mostly used in the surgical fields.

It's new enough and complicated enough that agencies that have been playing around with the concept have still kept it in in-house realm, or perhaps brought it out for stunt-based campaigning.

Buenos Aires-based Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, which has been doing groundbreaking work in product design recently, came out with "Friend Recovery," for Andes Beer, which let friends that were sitting at home also be present at the bar with their pals.

"Friend Recovery Tables" were placed in bars in Argentina. Using a code, the friend who was stuck in the house logged into a Web site using the code and mapped his face in the matrix. The robot itself is life-size, with human features and the ability for 180-degree head movements that users can control.

The agency is ambitious: They hope to use the IP to develop a bar exclusively for robots, where friends can connect at any time, according to ECD Mariano Serkin. It's a fantastical proposition, a virtual social network that uses robots to connect in real life. "The idea is to launch it with David Guetta, if we find a sponsor." said ECD Maxi Itzkoff.

Japanese agency Nuuo developed what might be the most adorable iteration of the trend with "Nubot," a video-chat doll that uses iPhone 4S technology and Skype's dialpad to move around. The agency's Tokyo and Fukuoka offices are currently using it for interoffice meetings.

CEO Tomohiko Hayashi hopes to patent the technology, but the relevant law in Japan, he said, means it may be years until he is able to. Still, he hopes to use it for good, to connect families that were separated due to the devastating Japanese earthquake last year.

Before the holidays, Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam resurrected its "Virtual Holiday Dinner," which lets friends and family call in to a sit down dinner. Using Skype, guests called in, and their images were transmitted onto monitors that formed the robot's heads. A facial tracking software looked for the eyes, nose and mouth, so the robot was controlled by users moving their heads from side to side.

"We connect with each other in so many ways… but we are getting more separated," said Thijs Biersteker, creative at W+K Amsterdam. "There is a trend of technology being used to actually connect people in real life again -- human to human, blood and bones."

The team at W+K Amsterdam plans to keep updating the concept. Mark Bernath and Eric Quennoy, ECDs, have some idea of what might happen. "Maybe some robot groping," said Bernath, "Or maybe even the emission of turkey smells from your laptop."