I was puzzled to say the least. I was puzzled when I first saw a new iPhone app called ‘Hanasake Talk! Lite’ in the start-up presentation battle at the ustream live broadcasting event ‘Change!’ on May 28th. This is an application to enjoy conversation with a character ‘Hanasake Mee!’, said the staff of iNAGO Inc, the Tokyo-based company which developed this app. What in the world is this character? Is this an ET?
I tried and played with this character, but it had a limited conversational ability. But they say Mee! would gradually learn how to communicate. What is it supposed to mean??
At the presentation battle, the employees of iNAGO wore costumes of ‘Mee!’ and performed a not-so-funny skit.
What’s with this company?
This company must be joking. Either that or they have some amazing technologies that I never heard of. One of the two.
With my thought as such, I asked for an interview. On a disgustingly sultry day in June, in the rainy season in Japan, while regretting that I had asked for an interview, I visited iNAGO to hear their story.
iNAGO inc. was a company of the latter. It actually had amazing technologies.
The CEO of iNAGO is a Canadian national, Ron DiCarlantonio. He
graduated from prestigious University of Waterloo with a degree in computer science in 1989. He had worked at several North American corporations including IBM before coming to Japan to work at Sony/Tektronix. Then he joined 9003 Inc., a software development start-up in Tokyo, and developed the virtual aquarium software, AQUAZONE.
I didn’t know about this software, AQUAZONE, but it apparently was very popular back then.
Returning to Canada, Mr. DiCarlantonio distributed AQUAZONE through major toy manufacturer Mattel from 1997. Meanwhile, he maintained the rights for online sales of digital fish in North America and was surprisingly successful selling through this new Internet medium directly to users.
At the same time, he was aiming for the next level. “After the pet simulation, I began developing technology to simulate humans. Then I created a platform called NetPeople” said Mr. DiCarlantonio. After marrying a Japanese woman, he split his time between Canada and Japan for improvement and promotion of NetPeople originally for business applications.
Specifically, NetPeople is a collection of technologies that allow for interaction with humans through a virtual assistant or an automated response robot. At the core of NetPeople are technologies such as a NetPeople goal-based inference engine, context awareness and natural language processing. More than 10 years of technological development is leading to a high degree of sophistication.
The best way to understand how the technology works is to actually talk with a virtual agent. There is an agent named Mona on the website of iNAGO inc. Ask her some questions.
Since the areas of questions are limited — questions about NetPeople on iNAGO’s site, questions about member services on the au one Net site, and questions about printers on Brother’s site, relatively accurate answers are returned. Unlike the audio guidance that limits your question by ‘press 1 for a question on A, press 2 for a question on B’, or the typical FAQ search engine with a long list of possible responses, the interaction with virtiual agents is fairly natural and seems to lead quickly to an answer.
iNAGO has provided NetPeople to the customer Service field so far, and now they are directing it to the fields of web marketing and the Consumer market. “My goal is to have NetPeople Agents as the natural interface on all devices and channels where people interact.”
Thus, iNAGO has released ‘Hanasake Talk! Lite’ as their first trial for the Consumer market. This is not just a silly application. This not only makes interaction with computer devices and services easier and more fun but it is applicable for brand-building and marketing.
Imagine the mascot of your company acting like Mee! and talking with users. It would surely help users to have a closer feeling toward the brand and help corporations reach and communicate with consumers better.
Information such as new campaigns and user support services can be provided through conversation with users in real-time. Since all conversations are logged, they can be analyzed to determine what users really want and don’t want (an alternative to traditional and boring questionnaires!). Consumers can win by getting what they want quickly and easily, and corporations can win by knowing and building a good relationship with their customers.
NetPeople will become a new type of user interaction. Pretty amazing, don’t you think?