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Express yourself, with animated Web characters from Israel’s Gizmoz

Posted By Nicky Blackburn On June 28, 2007 @ 9:50 am In | No Comments

Fed up with the impersonality of digital communications? Then think Gizmoz. The Israeli start-up has developed a new technology that enables Internet users to create their own animated talking characters to bring life to social networking profiles, blogs, emails, and personal Web sites.

 

 

The photorealistic characters can be based on a picture of the user, a friend, a teacher, a parent, a celebrity, or indeed anyone. The characters deliver personalized, lip-synched messages, and can be used to generate video clips and other forms of original content.

“This is about personal identity,” says Gizmoz founder and CEO Eyal Gever. “Our service enables people to express themselves as talking characters and to create animated content. Our characters talk and move in a way that up to now people have only seen in the movies.”

Using the free technology is simple. Users upload a full-frontal photograph of their face to the site. They can then customize this picture with a range of clothes, hats, glasses, hair styles, tattoos and backgrounds. The next step is to record a message.

“You can create parodies, jokes, content of all sorts,” Gever tells ISRAEL21c. “You can send up your family, your self, your friends, a school teacher, celebrities, anyone. We animate the character, doing lip-sync with the words, and using our emotional engine to make the character look real and full of life.”

What Gever calls the emotional engine is an algorithm that creates appropriate facial expressions, like raised eyebrows, nods, and eye blinks, to match the tone of the voice and words. “It’s like Pixar for the people,” says Gever. “We help the user create animated video in a matter of minutes at a quality they haven’t experienced before.”

Gizmoz, which was founded in 2003 and has offices in Herzliya and in Menlo Park, California, also offers users a widget answering machine where users can create a character using the Gizmoz technology and embed it on their digital space. The widget welcomes visitors, and invites them to leave a message using a character of their own.

To create website traffic, Gizmoz has signed agreements with a range of recording artists, including Kelly Clarkson, 50 Cent, Kelly Rowland and Lil Mama.

The artists use their likeness and voice on the answering machine widget, and leave the audio message for visitors to their MySpace pages. Visitors to these pages with Gizmoz profiles can then leave audio messages for the artist using the same text-to-voice technology. “In the first few days, 50 cent had 700 messages left by fans, and Kelly Clarkson had about the same,” explains Gever.

In the coming month, the company plans to sign on 30 more big artists and Gever says the company is looking to partner with the labels on music licenses.

Gizmoz also offers users animated stickers which allow the user to record their voice and leave messages for friends on social networking sites, replacing traditional text messages.

Gever, one of Israel’s first round of high tech wonderkids, set up his first company, Zapa Digital Arts, in the 1990s when he was still in his early 20s. For a while things looked good for the Tel-Aviv based company, which specialized in rich DIY media content for homepage owners. It attracted a great deal of funding and the attention of John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple.

In early 2001 an acquisition by Bertelsmann fell through at the last moment when the market crashed. “After a few months I realized the deal wasn’t going to happen,” says Gever, now 36. “I had no alternative but to lay off and reduce staff.”

In the wake of September 11th, Gever realized that the company was in serious trouble. “We had no future. I couldn’t sell the company, I couldn’t raise money. We couldn’t survive,” he admits. He and his partner hatched a plan to purchase the company, keeping the most talented staff and the company’s IP, and to create a completely new legal entity with new shareholders, using this core team.

Gizmoz began development work in 2003, and only completed it this year. Development cost $4 million, most of which came from angel investors including the Lieberman family. Gizmoz launched its technology for the public at the end of May. “We realized that to build this service and to get to this level of quality it would take time,” says Gever.

In March this year, the company raised $6.3 million from US venture capital firms, Benchmark Capital and Columbia Capital. Benchmark is a leader in this field with companies like Second Life in its portfolio, while Columbia is an expert in the mobile communications space, a market that will be very significant for Gizmoz.

The funds will be used to enhance the company’s team and infrastructure, to market the company and to expand product development.

“Eyal and his team have created a digital medium that has the potential to significantly impact the future of consumer entertainment and communications,” said Elie Wurtman, general partner, Benchmark Israel. “Benchmark has a track record of investing early and often in pioneering concepts within the virtual world of avatars, gaming and interactive entertainment, and we are excited about the opportunities that Gizmoz presents. Its photorealistic, 3D talking characters take the concept of creating a digital identity to a whole new level.”

The company has also signed distribution partnerships with RockYou, one of the world’s top widget companies, and Freewebs, giving the start-up access to millions of users.

At present Gizmoz is free and it is clear that part of the service it offers will always be free in order to attract users. The company, however, has many ideas for making revenue. It can do so through product placement, for example. Not your usual pop-up ads, however, but a more integrated advertising. Users who want to accessorize their animated characters could perhaps dress their avatars using a range of real world clothes from Banana Republic say, or make-up from L’Oreal, or glasses from Gucci.

Or, the company might charge for premium features, like sending messages or adding a video ring tone to a mobile phone, sending out personal greetings to friends, or having unlimited message storage.

Alternatively, using business models already in use at Second Life, Cyworld, and Habbo Hotel, users could pay real money for virtual goods. At Habbo Hotel, for example, users have already spent $100 million on virtual goods. “This is big business,” says Gever. “People spend more and more time socializing on the Internet and they want to differentiate themselves by adding cool accessories like a motorbike, or a new pair of jeans, or a cool haircut.”

While Gizmoz is initially aiming at attracting the US market, the goal is to spread the animated characters worldwide. “This is a global business,” says Gever. “It’s international self-expression that is not limited to just one location. Asia and Europe are big opportunities, and being placed in Israel could be an advantage.”

Since its launch, Gizmoz has already attracted thousands of users. “The response is very encouraging,” admits Gever. “Every day hundreds of widgets and animations are being created. The number of characters being added daily is growing very quickly.”

A quick survey of the site reveals David Kane, a 25-year-old from Seattle who loves his skateboard and his guitar and is dressed in a trilby; Angela, a blonde 19-year-old from Portland who loves bellydancing; and Jay, a 54-year-old photojournalist who has equipped his avatar with a camera and a press card.

For the moment the site is still in beta stage as the company tinkers and experiments with it, adding new features and altering existing features as the audience demands. “It’s still early and we are working and evolving with the market. Beta is a definition that everyone understands. It’s a dynamic thing and allows us to work with the user to find out what they want and need.”

For Gever, who has already seen one company succeed and then fail, Gizmoz offers a new opportunity. “I feel very excited and positive about Gizmoz,” he admits. “We have something very unique and the market is ready. It’s not like the ’90s, when the ideas were great but too early because the bandwidth and business model weren’t there. This time the market already exists and it’s huge. We don’t have to educate it, and we are bringing something very clear.”

So will Gizmoz make it? “As an experienced entrepreneur I know what it takes to build a business and a team, and to manage that business and make it a success,” replies Gever. “But the most important thing always is luck. You’ve got to have some luck.”

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