Pocket Avatars: Mapping the Facial Expressions of Millennials

But are Millennials Giving Pocket Avatars Any 'Face Time?'

In 2014, Intel navigated into new waters when it released Pocket Avatars, a messaging app available for iOS and Android, which is aimed at the millennial demographic and allows users to send expressive, short video messages using preselected characters or avatars.

While there are an abundance of messaging applications for mobile devices, Pocket Avatars differentiates itself by allowing users to map their facial gestures to a chosen 3D avatar, including the likenesses of Katy Perry, Lego, Annoying Orange and even President Obama. The mobile app maps over 30 points on a user’s face and can even distinguish between the sticking out of a tongue versus the opening of a mouth. The gesture points are then used to control the facial expressions of avatars in a video, which can then be messaged publicly or privately.

Bandwidth-friendly technology

According to Wenlong Li, who leads the Pocket Avatars engineering team in China, one of the project’s initial goals back in 2008 was to investigate how to use a facial gesture tracking algorithm and avatar mapping to reduce the amount of data transmitted during video conferencing. With initial prototypes of the technology, Intel engineers were able to achieve a 40 to 60-times reduction in the amount of data by shifting from video transfer to the simple transmission of facial data points used to animate the avatar.

Katy Perry is one of several celebrity likenesses available in Pocket Avatars.
Katy Perry is one of several celebrity likenesses available in Pocket Avatars.

By 2011, the focus was on the detection, mapping algorithms, improving accuracy, and enhancing the rendering of the avatars,  Li said, with the desire to create an animated graphic representation of a user. The algorithm accuracy increased over the years, and by September 2013, the Pocket Avatars project had full backing of then-new CEO Brian Krzanich.

Even with executive support, however, the company chose to downplay the brand and nowhere within the app is there an Intel logo. The Intel name only appears on app store listings and within the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Legal Information.

“This was intentional,” said Richard Hannah, general manager of marketing at Intel. “This is a new, untested project for Intel.”

Mapping to millennials

Although they have not said what the specific target numbers are, Pocket Avatars is still looking for more active users. “We are still in that iteration phase, still in that experiment phase, still trying to figure it out,” said Hannah. “We haven’t reached the goals that we have set for ourselves… we need to see more active daily users and a more rapid viral adoption rate before we’ll claim success.”

“You need to have an enormous subscriber base in order to be seen as a player,” Hannah said. “It takes a lot of effort to catch fire…”

To achieve broad scale, Pocket Avatars has to work on a wide variety of devices and operating systems and with varying specifications. The engineering group had to develop extremely efficient algorithms to produce a favorable user experience regardless of the hardware.

Lorenzo demonstrates Pocket Avatars with Hook 'Em, the mascot of the University of Texas.
Lorenzo demonstrates Pocket Avatars with Hook ‘Em, the mascot of the University of Texas.

“Our goal is that we don’t require people to buy something to make it work,” explains Josel Lorenzo, product manager on Pocket Avatars. “[Users] will use their existing device and OS and we will try to make it work there.”

Ironically, the app may be attracting an audience that is even younger than the team initially had planned. “What we have built is an app that is cute, whimsical and fun,” said Hannah, but 18-24 year olds are looking for something that is “cool, hip, and edgy.”

“It really is a new paradigm to teach people that their face is being mapped,” said Mary Smiley, engineering general manager at Intel. “They literally have never seen it before.”

“We’ve got a product that ostensively is right in the sweet spot of what [these users] want to do, but we have a look, feel, aesthetic and some content partners that is a jarring moment for those people – they say ‘oh, this is designed for kids, this isn’t for me,'” said Hannah.

Lorenzo likens growing an app to building a business.

“There are so many [apps] out there, the way people use apps now is really about trying it and maybe they will forget it, or, if they do like it so much, what would make them come back a week or a month later,” said Lorenzo. “When you build a business, it’s not just about going out and starting it, you actually have to see how it evolves. And when you see that, that is when you can take deeper learnings in that phase.”

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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