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Cultural Agents
and Avatars
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by using an automated replication protocol that kept all of the systems in synchronisation,
and did not depend on real-time links between the systems, which would have raised
many integration and security issues.
The Executive provided the project's design brief and held regular face-to-face meetings
with the avatar specialists as the project progressed, making suggestions for technical and
other amendments.The project drew extensively on Executive staff expertise in traditional
and emerging communications channels (including mobile communications), together
with DA Group's specialist knowledge and experience in the implementation of avatars
and mobile solutions. Seonaid's interface was designed for use by non-technical personnel
and for future scalability, hence maintenance requirements are relatively low. System use
does require some understanding of transcoding (changing one format to another for use
on different software or devices
115
) to manipulate the publishing templates.The control
system is easy to use, according to Stephanie Baldwin, senior editor of online news at the
Executive. `We just type in the news story or feature that we want Seonaid to read, then
we use pull-down menus to select her wardrobe, the camera angles and presentation for-
mat that we want to use, and the software effectively does the rest.'
116
Seonaid is now fully operational and is a permanent feature on the Executive's Web
site.The character was given a Scottish accent after a year (developed by Edinburgh firm
Rhetorical
117
), in order to maximise Seonaid's local attractiveness while broadening her
audience appeal, and to provide increased variety and control.
Seonaid's first appearances were on the Junior Exec Web site, reading news and hosting
events. Since then her popularity has blossomed, and the character has become more
broadly associated with Scottish Executive communications. Seonaid now appears in
mainstream news announcements, marketing initiatives, and other communications such
as conferences, exhibitions, and promotional videos. She is treated as the online `face' of
the Scottish Executive.
Since Seonaid's introduction, the Executive's Web site has seen page impressions
increase by sixty-three per cent, with a thirty-seven per cent increase in unique users
(October 2003 figures). Search engine-generated traffic has almost doubled, at 177%,
118
with the avatar's unique attraction being borne out by the increase in Web traffic since
her introduction. Seonaid's formal evaluation is carried out through regular analysis of
Web site statistics. Seonaid is currently undergoing further development with input being
gathered from invited stakeholders such as teachers and parents, education authorities,
and organisations such as Learning and Teaching Scotland. It is planned to test these pro-
posed changes on the Junior Exec site early in 2004.
119
For her developers, Seonaid is helping to break down the barriers of traditional
human computer interaction while her persona is concurrently helping to change young
people's perceptions about politics and online news delivery in general. Development on
the Junior Exec Web site is geared towards using Seonaid to facilitate the use of online
learning resources by children between the ages of eight and twelve.
There may be further scope to extend Seonaid's usefulness to include video mobile
messaging: a pilot to test her effectiveness in this medium is currently under way, and is
115 For more on transcoding see http://searchwebservices.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid26_gci515589,00.html
116 http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,55446,00.html
117 http://www.rhetoricalsystems.com
118 http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,55446,00.html
119 In the past, students have also been asked to assess her design and presentation, resulting in fashion design
students from Heriot Watt University submitting designs for an image makeover.
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