The New 'Face' of E-Mail

Is e-mail taking away from face time? It doesn't have to anymore.

A new program called Facemail allows users to have the text of their e-mail read aloud by a virtual person.

The technology, created by LifeFX, offers an array of attractive young men and women — as well as a devil and a clown — as possible messengers. The odd cast of characters will even act out emoticons typed into the note.

"It brings e-mail to life," said Bill Clausen, chief marketing officer at LifeFX, based in Newton, Mass. "We're humanizing technology."

One drawback is that both sender and receiver must have the program for it to work. But Facemail can be tested by downloading it and sending e-mail to yourself.

A hunky jock read one test note in a jerky, mechanical voice, winking when he came to the ;-) emoticon and blowing kisses to act out the :-x symbol.

"Hi. How are you?" he said. "I am surprised this actually works now. Just testing to make absolutely sure. Otherwise, I will be ..." Here the note included an angry-face emoticon, which inspired a berserk fit in the character. He bared his teeth and shook violently.

Having a virtual stranger deliver the e-mail messages you send and receive might not be the kind of face-to-face you're looking for. In order to make the exchanges more personal, the company will soon implement technology that enables users to have e-mail read in their own voices. By next year, senders can opt to have their faces appear on the screen to deliver the messages.

Facemail was unveiled in December of last year. LifeFX has partnered with IBM to incorporate the voice technology the program uses and will pair with Kodak to make it possible for people to use their own faces when they send e-mail, which involves creating virtual representations from snapshots, according to Clausen.

The software, which can be downloaded from, is free. But LifeFX charges companies to license its technology so they can use the virtual people as guides or greeters on their Web sites. Its customers include Whirlpool, KiwiLogic and IBM, among others.

Clausen said that judging by the amount of registrations to download the software — and the number of corporate clients buying it for their Web sites — hundreds of thousands of people currently use Facemail. But so far, it hasn't become mainstream.

He believes its appeal over ordinary e-mail is that it's more visual and simulates human interaction.

"We communicate better with what feels like face-to-face communication," he said.  "You can miss a lot with just text."

But one communication technology expert at the University of Texas in Austin is skeptical that virtual people will satisfy the need for human interaction.

"I'm not sure that the little mechanical, artificial face will give most people the feeling of personal-ness and warmth," said Craig Scott, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies. "Before you can expect any mass use, the technology really needs to get good."

Josh Quittner, editor of the technology magazine On, said Facemail is a lot of fun but doesn't serve any real utilitarian purpose.

"It's more of a novelty than anything else," Quittner said. "There's no practical reason to use this. Most people who try it do it for a few days and love it, then completely abandon it."