Making Animation Old-School Again, Part 1/2

Any animator who’s been in the business for a while has heard rumors proclaiming “Traditional 2D animation is dead!”

The rumors of my death, as they say, have been greatly exaggerated.

Truth is, it’s not dead.  Might not be kicking as hard as it once was, but it’s certainly not dead.

Many current animated films lend themselves well to the classic style.  Imagine if a fan remade “Moana” in 2D animation!  I’d pay to see that.  The songs, the stories could be even more intense and meaningful if done in this fashion.

After all, that’s why filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen use black and white cinematography in some movies:  When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message.

 

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The State of 2D Animation
It is true that it’s been a long time since there’s been any major 2D movies released in America.  There have been some smaller releases, and there have been some foreign releases as well.  Perhaps some of the best recent 2D movies have come from Studio Ghibli (“Ponyo,” “The Wind Rises,” “The Secret World of Arrietty”).

There are a lot of good reasons to do animation on computers – it’s easier, it’s cheaper, not to mention faster.  Still, everything comes in cycles, and I’d lay money that art styles found in movies are no different.
Change in Your Pocket
Even given that, the major reason for the shift from 2D to 3D movies is going to be the Quest for the Almighty Dollar.  3D movies are indeed faster to make, and easier too.  So I wouldn’t blame you for waxing cynical when you weigh this against the effort required to put a few seconds of the Lion King in motion.  And although there are plenty of other quality studios out there, the Mouse Eared One is pretty much calling the shots on what kinds of animated features we see in theatres.  In short, they have the power to determine if those films are 2D or 3D.

Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see them.  And especially today, if major movie studios don’t give folks what they want, people pick up the slack themselves.  Do a Google search for “crowdfunded 2d animated movies” and you get “Hullabaloo,” “Drukten,” “World Destroyer,” and “The Ape Man” — and that’s only on the first page!

Examining “Hullaballoo” shows that the film, created by veteran animators and artists from Disney, has far surpassed their monetary goals.  They asked for $80,000 to get it done.  And incredibly, as of this writing they have $470,726 pledged.  Backers will get to see not only the movie, but three bonus shorts as well.

 

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So yeah, people are putting their money where their mouth is.
But Is 2D Animation Worth Saving?
All animation has a soul.  And that soul is 2D – it blooms in every kid who ever made a stick-figure flipbook in grade school.  This kind of animation created the entire industry; without it, modern CG animation would not exist.  Also, in many ways 2D animation is able to convey amazing detail when it comes to feeling and emotion.  In a word, 2D animation is beautiful (still).

Indeed, there is a certain warmth, a certain artistry that hand-drawn animation captures.  Mathematically precise 3D characters generated by computer can’t quite match this.  Therefore it is an art worth preserving, despite the film industry not agreeing at the moment.
So Where is 2D Animation Now?
Sure, it’s been a long time since any major animated feature film, much less from Disney, or even in America.  Still, it’s actually pretty easy to find 2D cartoons in another medium:  On television.  You might have heard of “The Simpsons.”  It’s been on TV since 1990 — that’s 27 years, as of this writing.  Other shows are almost as popular, such as “South Park,” “King of the Hill,” and “Archer.”  It’s being shown to younger audiences too, by shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Steven Universe.”

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Even if it’s not Pixar-style animation, though, these shows are generated by computer.  Most cartoons are made on computers, using Flash and other tools.

Granted, it’s not two dimensional animation, strictly speaking.  There is often shading and other effects not easily achievable with cel-style techniques.  Even though it’s a blend of traditional animation and some aesthetic anime stylings, it does prove that audiences still love the medium.

Stay tuned for some more notes and musings in our next feature, Making Animation Old-School Again, Part 2.
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Classic Animation versus Live-Action Remakes

by John Onorato
There have been a lot of “live action” remakes over the last few years.  2015 saw Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous period remake of the classic Cinderella tale.  “The Jungle Book” was remade in 2016 with lavish special effects, and we got “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017.  The latter is a bona-fide hit, with box-office receipts grossing over $1 billion.  There have been more in the past, and those will certainly not be the last.  There are many more remakes to come.
tintin myanimelist.net
¶ Of course, many people (like myself) remain fond of the originals.  Even 25 year old films like The Lion King are still quite good.  The movie looks as good as it did when it was first released in 1994, and it’ll likely look as good in another 25 years.  Its remake is slated for 2019.  The films will be similar, but it won’t matter how good the remake looks.  They are totally different films.
¶ In other words, the market has plenty of room for new material.

Animation Today

CG animation is ascendant in the industry, however.  Yet traditional animation still survives, despite not having many recent major releases.  It was used, for example, in 2016’s Pacific Island epic “Moana,” to animate the tattoos on the character Maui.
¶ Still, it is accurate to say that hand-drawn animation is being deprecated in today’s workplace.
 liveactionvsanimated03 cinema.com.kh
At the same time, though, traditional drawing skills are still in demand.  They’re especially useful when planning an animation.  Even if the final product will be digital, it’s incredibly useful for an animator to create a thumbnail with clear facial expressions and body poses.
¶ Audiences, too, seem to be favoring CG animation.  Whether the CG manifests photorealistically (as it did in Beauty and the Beast) or as “Pixar style animation” (think “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Wall-E”), producers are responding to this trend.  Producers make their business decisions based on market data, so the trend is likely here to stay.

On The Making of Films

Making films remains an astonishingly risky business.  Especially since viewers are drawn by over-the-top special effects (which cost a lot of money), the movies with the most spectacle and heft are the ones that draw the biggest crowds.  In 2012, Disney released “John Carter,” which seemed destined to be a big thing.  It had the glitz, it had the glamor, and it had excellent effects work, but it never pulled in audiences.
¶ A much safer proposition is to go through the vault of films that already achieved “hit” status, and remake them using live action.  And why shouldn’t they?  They’ve been tried, and they seem to be true.  People are likely to be more interested, as they’re already familiar with the characters.  Most of the hard concept work has been done already.  If it was a hit before, it can be a hit again, right?

¶ Still, it’s too soon to say if these live action remakes will ever be considered “classics.”

Either-Or

jungle book 2016 ign.com
Though they have been mixed together since the 1900s, the line that separates animation and live action has become blurred even more since 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”  That’s the first movie this writer can remember which did this.  Since then, some movies are nearly all CGI, with only a smattering of live action.  One example is 2016’s “The Jungle Book.”  In that movie, nearly everything was CG, aside from Neel Sethi who played the boy.  Other movies blend CG and live action even more seamlessly.  Only those with the keenest of eyes would know that the James Bond movie “Spectre,” which came out in 2015 was mostly CG … even the parts that looked “normal,” as if they were shot on location or on a set.
¶ Today’s directors have many more choices open to them, creatively speaking.  They only have to decide how they want their film to look, then gather the right team to realize that vision.  So the question is not about what’s better – it’s more about what’s more true to the director’s vision.

 

Facebook or website? Self-promotion on a shoestring

by John Onorato

Marketing and promotion are important parts of any animator’s toolkit. Unless you want to create videos by yourself and for yourself, it’s important to let people know about your work.

Yet there are many ways to accomplish these tasks. You can benefit either from having a dedicated website, like this one for the recent Dunkirk movie, or a Facebook page like this one for 2016’s Arrival. Many films have both.

Before Facebook allowed pages that weren’t directly related to people, a website was how you promoted your film. A website helped your film attract fans and a following. When someone expressed interest at a networking or other event, it was pretty easy to give them your URL. When they visited, there was all kinds of data about your film: contact information, about the crew, backstage photos, credentials and the like. And the better the site looked, the better you and your project looked. But it cost money.

Creating a website from the ground up, though, is neither easy nor cheap. Today it’s easy to do that on Facebook. And Facebook is free.

Big plus, huh?

So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each method.

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How Much Will It Cost?
For those of us who have yet to create a website, let’s look at the very basics. We’ll assume you’re going to use the WordPress.org content management system as it’s easy when using it.

One of the great things about WordPress is that there’s lots and lots of themes (or skins) aimed at creatives. There’s even a number of themes aimed at short films. You can easily use these to make a unique website. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but it’s easy to glean what you need to know. And they usually offer the essentials at a discount for first time buyers.

If you’ve never created a website before, let’s break down the basics. We’re going to assume you’re using something like a wordpress.org hosting platform. (Learn the difference between WordPress.org and .com here). Using WordPress, you can find a ton of great short film or creative-oriented themes that you can build upon to create a unique website. While there is definitely a learning curve, you can pick up what you need to know relatively quickly. For your first purchase, you can also get the essentials at a discounted cost:

  • Domain – Also known as the website’s URL, you have to purchase the right to use JohnsAwesomeMovie.com . This runs usually a dollar or so for your first year, and $10 a year after that.
  • Hosting – Your site has to be hosted on a server so that it’s accessible to the rest of the Internet. This usually costs $10 a month, or less if you’re able to pay for a whole year up front.
  • Theme – Without a theme, your site will look like everyone else’s. Like you simply dumped a bunch of stuff on a page. There are some available for free, but the better ones cost between $40 and $150.

hipster laptop

So to get started with a basic package, you’re looking at between $50 and $160. Sure, you might have that in your back pocket right now, but for a low-budget film, that can be a big chunk to let go of. And that’s not even factoring in the time you’ll need to put in to make your site work right.

On the other hand, a Facebook page is free. They’re easy to get up and running; might take you ten minutes. There is no daunting learning curve or fussy plug-ins. And there’s no code to mess with either. But you won’t own the page outright like you would with a dedicated website.

Now if you wanted a website that’s completely unique and new, you’d incur the additional expense of a web designer. That’s a good way to catapult your site into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Given that, it’s usually best to pick a theme you like and then tweak it so it doesn’t look like the original. Or you could hire a WordPress theme designer, who are generally more affordable than creating a whole site from scratch.

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Engaging the Social Element
There is a lot more to having your own website, too. You have to think of discoverability – you might have created the greatest site in the world, but if no one knows about it, and therefore no one visits it, then you’ve wasted your time and money. Webmasters spend lots of time on making pages that are friendly to search engines (also known as SEO, or Search Engine Optimization). They work on the site content as well, all with an eye towards increasing the page rankings of the site. If all that’s on your site is a short film, and no additional content to add value, people will soon stop visiting your site. And thus your site will slip to the bottom of the search rankings barrel.

Even if the video players on Facebook and YouTube are pretty basic, they do get the job done. And again, they’re free, aside for the time you put into content creation.

So there’s a lot of value in examining the benefits of promoting – and maybe hosting your film on Facebook as opposed to a conventional website.

There are a lot of benefits to hosting your work on Facebook. Granted, there are several ways of getting it out there: You can put your film on YouTube (or Vimeo), you can create a website, or you might create a Facebook page. Regardless of how that happens, though, people are at some point going to start talking about your film on Facebook. It might even start making the rounds there. But the reach of people sharing your Facebook page versus that of people sharing your film’s site will be much much greater. One major reason for this is that the algorithm that Facebook uses to share things strongly favors content that will keep a user on the Facebook site. The more times advertisements get pushed out in front of users’ faces, the more revenue Facebook gets. So if a few people watch, then share your film, you’ll probably get more people viewing your Facebook page than if those same people shared a dedicated website.

Facebook makes short work of marketing and promotion

Sounds like a done deal, doesn’t it? Facebook seems to win all around. But there’s one more perk to creating a Facebook page, and that has to do with how you communicate with your audience. On Facebook, that communication can be real-time. In other words, you can use Facebook to communicate with your fans on a moment’s notice.

On Facebook, as soon as someone posts a thing, you get a notification. You can’t beat that for ease and speed of use. You can build a following, an entire community surrounding your film on Facebook. And your audience will grow, as communities tend to do. About the only area in which a dedicated website beats Facebook is if you wanted to have multi-threaded forums. Of course, those can be pretty tedious to install. And Facebook does offer the one thread to you, which is great for disseminating information about your project. People can talk about it on there, too; always a plus.

Sure, it’s easy to configure WordPress. It’s even easy to do so on the fly, from your phone. But it’s still not as easy as using the Pages app provided by Facebook.

If you’re making a low-budget short piece, setting up an entire website solely for promotional purposes just isn’t feasible. You’ll be spending money that you’ll likely never get back. On the other hand, though, if you want to sell merchandise (or if you wanted to install forums, as above), a dedicated site is the way to go. Although they are improving it, the merch portions of Facebook are currently pretty fickle. So if you think you’ll have a market for hats, shirts, pom-poms and DVDs of your movie, then for e-commerce purposes, a dedicated site is the way to go.

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There is one more situation in which a full website is preferable. That’s when you have a large body of your work to showcase. Using a dedicated site, it’s easy to put all of that work on a single easily accessed page. It’s harder to do on Facebook. Not only is there a river of status updates to navigate, but any additional work has to be buried at least one or two clicks deep.

And let’s face it: The harder people have to work at finding your great Making Of featurette, the less likely they are to actually watch it.

The Takeaway
What’s the takeaway here? If you want to have an entire exhibition showcasing all of your project, then make a website. On the other hand, if all you have is a short film (and maybe one or two other things) then it’s better to avail yourself of Facebook’s great Pages feature.

On Advertising
When was the last time you took a look at your Facebook feed? If it was any time in the last month, you’ve seen a Sponsored Post. These are “smart” promotions.

Facebook Pages looks at what categories a thing is in, and pushes content out to people who have expressed similar interests. For example, if you already follow several different romance pages, and I had a film named “Pretty Woman Redux,” then posts about my film would appear in your timeline, since I’ve targeted those kinds of keywords.

You can do pretty much the same thing with a website, but the process is much more involved. And you have to use a third-party ad manager. More money down the drain.

Facebook can be a thing that you either love or you hate. Either way, it’s an indispensable tool for any sort of creative type — even filmmakers! — to promote their work. It’s a great idea to use it for any creative venture.

Live-Action Reference in Animated Movies

Do you have any idea how much preparation goes in to making animated films?  If you’re not already an animator, then it’s hard to realize that for every second of screen time, hours of work have to be completed.  There are no “second takes” in animation.  Directors have to make sure everything is in place and ready before any animation begins.  It’s got to be right from the start.

One fascinating example of this is a film released by Oh My Disney.  One of Disney’s films, Hercules, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.  It might not be their best film, or even highly celebrated.  It’s still a good film, though, and plenty of people like it.  The video below shows the ridiculous amount of preparation that went into a key scene.


Of course the script had to be written before the above.  The music had to be composed, the lyrics set down, the storyboards drawn.  It wasn’t a spontaneous song-and-dance.  Rather, the point I’m making is that the directors of Hercules, Ron Clements and John Musker, basically made TWO movies.  Sure, they’re credited for Hercules the animated feature, but before that they made an entire live-action movie simply for animation reference.

They had to hire actors, make costumes, choreograph the dances, compose the shots — and then they had to edit it all.  So Hercules existed as a live-action movie before anyone sat down to animate it.

Pretty cool, huh?

It goes without saying that this was a really elaborate video shoot.  The use of live-action reference isn’t terribly uncommon, but this went beyond.  It’s similar to what Disney did with the original Snow White.  In the 1930s, they shot Marge Champion dancing to some of the songs.  The animators (who were then hand-drawing each frame) looked at that for inspiration and reference.

The Hercules movie is like that, only on a grander scale.

Of course, this sort of thing goes on a lot in many animated movies, even if it isn’t on the same scale.  Since it takes so long for each frame of final movie to render, no one can waste time working on things that aren’t going to make it in.  So most animated films are in some sense completed long before they reach theaters.  Of course minor changes happen, things are tweaked, but not a lot of final work happens until the movie is laid out.

Create an Awesome Pitch Video

There are many great reasons to create a pitch video for your animation project.  Say you want to attract new talent to work with.  Or maybe your project is nearly complete, and you want to find a publisher.

Or perhaps you want to secure funding (or other participation) through Patreon, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo.  The better your pitch, the more likely you’ll see results!

K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple, silly person.  Don’t overthink it too much.  Someone good at animation as you are can make a great two-minute pitch video in less than three hours.

And don’t bother to just slap in some video you just found, and expect it to work.  Custom-make a different pitch for every project.  Better cred comes that way.  Looks more legit, too, especially for people who like to dig around behind the scenes.

WHAT ARE YOU GONNA SAY?

Keep your script simple, too.   Shoot for a minute, maybe a minute and a half.  That’s enough time to get folks pumped up about what you’re doing.  Your written script should be about one page of double-spaced text.  That translates to about 1-1.5 minutes of video.

 

Good things to include:  Give some ideas about the inspiration for your project.  Tell people why you’re creating it.  Talk about what you’re looking for from prospective team members.  And if you can, include some artwork to let them into the world you’re creating.

WHAT’S IT GONNA SOUND LIKE?

Maybe you’re not as photogenic as the next guy, or you just don’t like showing your face on camera.  That’s cool!  Good voice overs work great, but you’re gonna have to have some visuals to show while your voice is playing.  See the next section for ideas on what to show.

 

You don’t need anything too fancy.  You can easily get away with using a good webcam and a headset microphone.  Try using Camtasia to edit your material; it records too.  It’s a good program to own, for sure, but if you’re on a budget they do offer a 30 day free trial.

 

When you’re recording your pitch, be sure that you do it somewhere you’re comfortable talking.  A good place to do it is in private, where you can be comfortable and speak in a normal, conversational voice.  So no busy offices, nothing that will interrupt you.

 

Want to put music in your pitch video?  Great idea!  There are lots of great sites to get free audio.  If you don’t want that hassle, though, try Audio Jungle.  They have some awesome pieces that won’t bust your wallet.

 

If you do use music, though, be sure that your music track is quiet enough so it doesn’t overshadow the rest of your audio.  For this video, people really need to hear what you’re saying, clearly and easily.  Music is secondary to your pitch and explanation, so make sure that it’s felt more than heard.

HOW MUCH EFFORT SHOULD YOU PUT IN?

Your pitch video should be something you can create in one day.  Don’t sweat it too much.  And get something up and online before worrying about things like filming in the ideal location.  It’s better to focus on gathering an awesome team than it is to spend a lot of time on your pitch video.  In other words, it doesn’t have to be a huge project (like the one you’re trying to pitch).

WHAT ARE YOU GONNA SHOW?

Lots of people are concerned about their intellectual property.  They don’t want to share too much because some people are bad sorts, and might copy or steal your work.  Fair point; that does happen.  It’s easy to tease people enough about this sort of thing to get them excited.
So show people your “B roll material.”  This can include concept art, reference materials, animation tests, model turntables, and first drafts.  If you only have an idea, because you’re just starting, then use art that has inspired you.  Just be sure to credit the original artists in the lower third of your video.

 

And if you only have an awesome idea to pitch, then get out there and find some concept art!  One good place to find such things is Artella, the animation collaboration platform.  Another is DeviantArt.  Other ways are just a Google search away, should you need more.

WHERE ARE YOU GONNA PUT IT?

When you’re done with your pitch, you need to host it somewhere.  If you have your own site already, you can probably put it there.  You can use YouTube as well.  A really good place to put it is Vimeo.  You don’t have to sit through ads before seeing the pitch, and the quality is really good too.  Vimeo offers free accounts; you’ll need one to upload anything.

EXAMPLES

Here are some terrific examples of project pitch videos people have made.  Some of these are pretty elaborate.  Remember, though, that simpler is generally better.

 

 

Is 4G the End of VoIP? Or Is It a New Beginning?

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image courtesy Mashable.com

Voice over IP technology has been used in both the consumer market and to greater effect, the business marketplace, for years. Now that mobile users are starting to see the same benefit in their communications protocols, namely with the advent of 4G LTE technology and WiMAX connections, businesses are starting to integrate mobile phones into their in-house data networks. Of course, this has its own set of barriers to overcome, but this is beginning to be an attractive alternative to the higher price of pushing data through traditional cellular plans. And the rapid advancement of 4G networks has resulted in the advent of VoIP options that can effortlessly retain compliance with older devices.

LTE networks enjoy less disruption than their older cellular counterparts

4G information networks promise to make a seismic shift in the way mobile networks function, and indeed in the entire mobile VoIP market. This is clear when one considers that 4G is not merely an incremental step up from 3G technology, as the name would suggest. Rather, 4G is an entirely different system. For one, there are no bandwidth restrictions with 4G networks, such as those that limited the growth potential of previous IP networks, especially in rural or remote areas. Combining 4G and VoIP technologies – transforming voice into data for transmission, and back again – will transform accessibility to the Internet, making it available anywhere 4G is.

As of this writing, the prevailing standard in 4G communications is Long Term Evolution (LTE) or 3rd Generation Partnership Project Long Term Growth (3GPP LTG). Within the mobile field, something that makes LTE networks unique is that they are entirely packet switched. This means less multi-user and inter-cell disturbances, and also greater throughput. Ultimately, current voice and data plans offered by mobile phone operators might become obsolete. And as VoIP becomes more and more mainstream, continuing advancements in Web technology will continue to shape the way the industry grows.

Mobile VoIP
When considering mobile solutions, VoIP becomes a different matter. In order to conduct a VoIP conversation, a wireless data connection has to be reliable enough to transmit data (or voice, transformed into data) all of the time. Something that works very well is to use a mobile VoIP app over a WiFi network – but then the person on the other end of the call is limited to using the same application. And using a WiFi network has the other limitations of that sort of network, as well – it’s not the same thing as using a WiMAX network, or 4G/LTE. This is why 4G will come to lead the VoIP revolution, if another standard does not rise to challenge it. The usage of VoIP and the apps needed to make use of the bandwidth are normally free. In other words, people are not getting paid for use of these services. One has to wonder if cellular companies will continue to allow this to happen – or if they will evolve with the times, instead.

VoIP is here to stay, regardless of the name it goes by

Something to note is that WiMAX works very similarly to the WiFi one might have in their house, with the most notable difference being the ranges involved. The normal, unobstructed range of WiFi is 150 to 200 feet, whereas WiMAX range is measured in miles or kilometers. LTE is useful in another way, as well, because it enables packet transmissions, which in turn enables mobile broadband. Again, this is far more advanced than the older cellular systems.

So What Happens to VoIP?
For mobile VoIP calls, WiMAX and LTE will certainly function well enough, although it remains to be seen if the price per call in either format will be comparable to the existing cost of wireless calls. Each of these fourth generation protocols are IP based, making them reasonable transport solutions for Mobile VoIP. So will that make VoIP go away? Certainly not. It might be referred to by a variety of different names, such as VoLTE, VoWiMAX, or Vo4G, but bet on the simplest one, because no one likes a cumbersome name.

Can you say 5G?

It’ll still be VoIP, regardless.

 

 

Originally published in April 2014

The Basic Flaw Inside Every Chatbot

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Chatbots are a relatively new addition to the tech landscape.  Last year at this time, they simply weren’t on the radar, for the most part.  Of course, Amazon’s Alexa has been around for a while, and Apple’s Siri for even longer than that.  Chatbots really took off, though, when Facebook released the API platform for its own chat service, Messenger.  That one act spurred developers to create over 40,000 chatbots in eight months.  They’re still making them, too!  And if you count those created on platforms such as Kik and Telegram, add thousands more to that figure.

The function of one chatbot is pretty much like that of any other — after receiving input from a user, it gives information to that user via a text message.  The aim of a chatbot, though, can vary widely.  Some provide beauty tips, some allow you to order food, and still others satirize political candidates.

How do you make your chatbot stand out from the rest?

Chatbots are mostly the same behind the scenes, as well.  They all do the same thing.  A chatbot accepts input, then provides information based on that input.  Thus a user’s experience in one chatbot is pretty much a duplicate of another.

So what makes a bot special?  Or more importantly, how does a developer create a chatbot that’s distinctively different than another?

An abundance of bots

This question is becoming increasingly important as more and more bots vie for users’ attention.  Forty thousand chatbots is a huge market to try and get a share of.  And that’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket, compared to the deluge coming.  The exact number can’t be divined, of course, but take a look at how they’ve taken off:  Since the number of chatbots has grown by roughly 20,000 in the last five months alone, it’s a safe bet that the number of chatbots will soon outstrip the number of apps available.

Ever heard that “There’s an app for that!”?  Pretty soon we’ll all be saying “There’s a chatbot for that!”

Chatbots scale very well

Say it’s Saturday night.  You open Facebook Messenger and visit the Uber bot.  You use it to order a ride for yourself and two friends.  You go to a restaurant and get the seat you reserved while you were on Messenger.  It’s exactly what you wanted — non-smoking, near the door, a table for three.  After you eat, one of your friends tells you about Louis Vuitton’s new fall fashions.  You open another chat, connect to Messenger again, and look up the company chatbot.  You start by looking at shoes, but on impulse you buy a new jacket instead.

This scenario is not at all far-fetched.  And you never have to leave Facebook Messenger to get it.  By now, messaging platforms are practically ubiquitous, so any brand can have one-on-one, personalized interactions with their customers.  And this can happen on an enormous scale.

Yet for this to happen — much less for it to happen well — there needs to be a richer experience for the customer.  Right now chatbots are menu-based.  And even though they provide a conversational interface, the actual exchange is anything but.  This circles back to the design of chatbots, their basic functioning.  Generally speaking, answers are scripted.  A user can’t type their own free-form input.  Instead they look at several structured answers, and choose one of those from within the chat message.

When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message

This leads to a certain sameness in the user’s experience, when moving brand-to-brand.  A lot of this is because of the medium.  By itself, text doesn’t offer much differentiation.  Take a chat from Telegram and it looks a lot like a chat in Facebook Messenger.  This is a real challenge for a brand that wants to make itself rise above the others by creating a unique experience for consumers.

Authentic conversations are the missing piece

But consider for a moment that the problem might not lie in the interface, but rather with the brands themselves.

The basic flaw in the chatbots available right now isn’t the fact that they’re not providing flashy interactions, or even that they lack the visual design possible with a regular web page.  Rather, brands are wasting the chance to engage their customers with one-on-one, personalized interactions.  Instead they offer tired interactions that are about as memorable as reaching out to your bank.  In other words, today’s chatbot interaction may as well be a menu-based, touch-tone call.

John Schwartz, Washington Post writer for science and technology, once said “That’s part of the reason that filmmakers like Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg shoot movies in black and white. When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message.”  Because chatbots lack the standard neat interactions and good-looking visuals, they force a brand into examining the thing that truly matters to an audience:  The conversation with the users.  More specifically, the content of those conversations.

Just selling things to consumers is so 1990s.  A brand needs to invest in the relationships it has with its customers.  A brand has to create affinity with themselves and their customers.  A consumer will be much more likely to buy from a brand they already have a relationship with.  And brand affinity is built the same way it is built with other humans:  Through personal interactions, through conversations.

And that’s the prime ingredient:  Conversation.  True conversation, as opposed to scripted, menu-driven “chats.”  And conversational content is crucial if a chatbot is to be effective.  Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google understand this.  They have hired multitudes of writers, including comics and novelists.  These people are helping to develop company chatbots so that each one has a unique voice, an individual personality.  These things are what make chatbots compelling; only by using voice and personality can they be good brand ambassadors.

It works both ways, too, which is a good thing for brands that lack a personality or a voice.  It is a chatbot’s duty to convey the personality of a brand, yet due to the hard work of the creative people that write their scripts, they may put more personality into the brand than might have been there in the first place.

Chatbots represent the next boundary in brand marketing and consumer engagement.  They give brands an exquisite opportunity to forge durable bonds with their customers.  But the first step is crafting an experience that is genuinely compelling.  Up until now, users have been willing to overlook the basic flaw of chatbots; they’ve been putting up with the boring interactions.  Now, though, it is time for chatbots to evolve.

Where’s the Killer Chatbot?

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Image courtesy TechNode

Let’s face it: Most of the chatbot experiences today are pretty wretched. They’re stilted, artificial and in some cases downright affected. Natural language processing is still in its infancy, and has a long way to go before sounding actually “natural.” Or truly understanding natural speech, for that matter.

This is due in part to the difficulty of designing a user interface around a conversation, which is non-hierarchical in nature. When talking to another person, the steps don’t always flow naturally from one to the other. This kind of design is also fundamentally different than either a mobile or web interface. Additionally, we have yet to develop a general-purpose AI which can accept a user’s open-ended input.

UIs are crafted to serve linear experiences

It is incumbent on chatbot creators, therefore, to pick out engaging patterns of interaction. Building on and around these will enable developers to create whole experiences that will delight the users.

So how do we work around the limitations of a conversational UI, knowing the above?

About the UI
Up until now, User Interfaces have been crafted for a linear experience, not a random one. In other words, after the user comes to the page, a specific sequence of events typically happen, at least in terms of ecommerce. First they search for an item or two. Those items are then added to the user’s cart. They enter payment information, check out and leave the site.

A chat based UI is completely different from either a web or mobile interface. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that the customer can initiate the procedure in different places. Say they want to buy tickets for a movie. The customer can ask a bot “What’s playing around 8pm?” Another valid starting point can be “I want three tickets to Trolls at the Regal on Little Texas Lane and Congress.”

So we see that a big challenge for anyone wanting to design a chatbot is that the path a customer will use to reach their goal (in this case, to purchase tickets) is not known beforehand. The chatbot has to assist the user and provide the desired answers without needing a discussion to progress in a straight line.

AI is Not Yet Ready
The next big stumbling block for chatbot developers is that a true AI that works on a variety of inputs is still a long way off. AIs themselves are not especially new, but they are new to the consumer marketplace. One AI-like construct that bot creators use a lot is the Simple Linear Tree, which forces the user down a predetermined path. New AI routines might also be used, but these are not true AI. They simply match patterns against pre-programmed conditions, in an effort to determine a user’s intent.

What we think of as AI is not truly AI

Generally speaking, these work well enough when there are a finite set of ways a user can interact with a bot. But as developers are finding out, user input can be totally random. This leads to situations where a bot can get unexpected input that it can’t handle. So without better tools, a better AI, it’s all a matter of hunt and peck. Or worse, finding the linguistic needle in a haystack of possibilities.

The Solution: Modify, Publish, Iterate, Repeat
So how does a bot developer succeed with the limited tools they have? The best path is not already defined, given the variety of inputs. Neither the number of inputs nor their content is known. There has to be a quick, iterative path to successful completion, and it has to be low-cost as well. A developer needs to be aware of how their bots are responding to the inputs provided by the user. With this knowledge, they can then iterate on what is already there. Any blocks between the user and their goal need to be addressed.

Users must be able to easily understand your conversational UI

Experience has shown that the best tools for the iterative method are bot native. This means they are able to understand the complexity and nuance of a conversational interface, and are able to translate them into clear metrics. Conversely, it also means the user is not simply dumped into meaningless dialogues or dashboards.

Marketing teams can use these tools to pinpoint groups of similar users, then connect with them through personalized messages. Creative and editorial teams can use them to address messaging that may be off-brand or that doesn’t have the desired tone. Business leaders can use them to provide a detailed picture of their efforts without the use of an engineering team and a data scientist just to “run the numbers.”

It’s important to have a conversational UI that’s easy to understand. It’s also important to iterate quickly on this. Being able to do these things will assist business leaders to grow differentiated bot-native arms that can leverage the great power found behind the conversational interface.

8 Truly Helpful Chatbots

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There’s a lot of hype around artificial intelligence today.  And chatbots are one of the primary ways the consumer is made aware of AI.

Chatbots are surprisingly easy to create.  And the deluge shows no signs of slowing down, thanks to the hype, the ease of creation, accelerating investments, and the rush of developers.  Over 225,000 bot developers have created more than 300,000 bots, reports Pandorabots, a leading chatbot development platform.

In this case, though, there is lots of supply and not so much demand.  The rush of supply seems largely due to the “cool factor” of bots, and is not driven by anyone asking their favorite brands to start using chatbots.

Chatbots do well when focused on one task

Dr. BJ Fogg is the founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.  When looking at his model of behavior, we see that in order for any shift to be made in consumer behavior, any given chatbot needs to be easier to use than the method being replaced.

Unfortunately, they’re not there yet.  Chatbots are still clunky.  As of this writing, it’s still easier to call, text or email the company in question.

At this point chatbots seem to do well when they focus on making a single task easier.  There are a few that realize the promise of AI, and that are able have more reasonable conversations by using context.  At this point, though, many users will still have only bare-bones conversations with most bots.

The sheer number of bots out there presents users with a problem:  How is anyone going to know which ones are truly helpful?  Sure, some bots may well assist a company’s cost-cutting measures.  Still, there is a lot of work needed before any customer gets a measurably better experience.

Right now there are a very few chatbots that provide some real utility and actual value.  They provide an inkling of what an interaction with an actually intelligent bot might be.  You might notice a theme among the bots picked:  They’re more realistic when the user wants to ask one of a group of prearranged questions.  They’re at their best when the tasks they handle are specific and clearly defined.

So here’s a list of the eight most useful chatbots out there today, in no particular order:

1.  Howdy’s function is to help you run your meetings in Slack.  Its founder, Ben Brown, created it with an eye to customization, so that everyone can use its talents of digital assistance and automation.  Howdy will reach out to participants and ask them a group of questions to prepare for the meeting.  It automates information collection and distribution.  It makes meetings shorter by leveraging a shortcoming of human nature — Howdy can talk to many people at once, whereas humans can’t.  These answers are then delivered to the meeting leader, and all participants, if the leader chooses to do so.  It sure beats copying and pasting the same questions over and over again.

2.  HealthTap was launched on Messenger not too long ago.  It aims to make good healthcare easier to reach by more people.  Not only does it allow a user to get a referral from real doctors, but it also assesses results of tests.  All that, and you can ask it health questions as well.  If other users have asked similar things, then it will show you those results.  Of course, health information can be highly personal, so HealthTap is ideal for those people that have no inhibitions.  The company does state that all questions and identity information is kept confidential and anonymous, but the fact that the company may associate a personal Facebook account with certain medical conditions may be a turn-off for some that prefer to keep a tight lid on their health information.

3.  Sephora chatbot on Kik.  Although it currently exists only on the Kik chat platform, the Sephora chatbot makes it easy for consumers everywhere not only to shop for products, but to get beauty tips as well.  Acting like the best in-store assistant, it provides three prime attributes of great customer service:  It responds right away, it’s highly educated, and it’s always available.  If you’re a member of Kik, it’s like having access to a Sephora team member in your back pocket.

4.  X.ai provides Amy, a personal assistant with one function:  Amy takes on the task of scheduling meetings, so that you can focus on more important tasks.  X.ai has been so successful with Amy because she does only one thing.  But that one thing she does extremely well.  She’ll schedule meetings without effort, but won’t take notes or solve any other problems for you.  Dennis Mortensen, X.ai’s founder has made a huge bet on the thoughts that bots are terrific for any very small task.  Due to this laser focus, the bot needs to be just about perfect.  Amy is their first attempt, and she makes scheduling conversational and easy.

5.  Assist integrates with several on-demand services such as Uber, GrubHub, OpenTable and Lyft.  A user can communicate with Assist through Facebook message, a text or by using Assist itself.  They can then get a ride, book hotels, or order take-out.  Assist uses input from users to improve itself with every question.

6.  Ozlo is a more personal AI.  At this time available only for iOS, he helps the user find information on their phone both easier and faster.  As with other bots, engage Ozlo in a dialogue text conversation, and it will give you answers on Google Now-like cards.  Deeper links are also provided to the websites and apps where it found the information.  The bot is partnered with other websites and apps such as Foursquare, Yelp, OpenTable and Zagat so he can provide great recommendations.  Right now Ozlo is being trained to help people find drinks, eats and entertainment — things that we all do daily. You can get more information about Ozlo from Charles Jolley, one of its chief designers.

7.  Pana blends AI with real humans to create an always-on travel agent.  Planning a trip is made easier, simpler, more personalized and cheaper with Pana’s skills.  Pana can also be your personal concierge, providing vetted choices for places to go and food to eat.  Since booking travel these days is mostly a matter of searching the same criteria on many sites, Pana makes booking easier and less time consuming.

8.  Birdly is a chatbot that acts as a bridge between Slack and Salesforce, making business-related data accessible to entire teams.  Directly on Slack, one thing Birdly can do is manage expenses.  This makes things more efficient, as it recognizes data input from invoices or receipts, allowing users to spend less time on expense reports.  Birdly also provides analytics, efficient alerting and customer information in one place.