My avatar and I have something to tell you

Very few people like the sound of their own voice when they listen to a recording play back.

Some also are dissatisfied with their appearance on screen – while others dream of not having to dress up for their next zoom.

A solution has appeared, not on the horizon, but right now – amazingly lifelike avatars that can attend classes/meetings, present in instructional videos and speak on your behalf.

It’s not hard to imagine how my AI alter-ego could be better dressed and have fewer stutters and digressions than my real self. And I never need to change out of my t-shirt again! Win-Win.

Could my avatar also soon become good enough to turn up to the many dreadful social events I try to avoid, or maybe some of the trickier moments in parenting?

Alerted by the avatar of my AI guru colleague Dr Nici Sweaney to this new tech, I went to the HeyGen platform, where they have developed a disarmingly simple process to create a talking video version of yourself (I don’t really like the term avatar, it just conjures blue people or emoji representations that someone else thought were a good idea).

I decided I wanted to tell you, dear reader, why I thought AI was worthy of more than your click-bait scrolling time for the day, on the assumption that you would be more likely to listen to my novelty avatar than read the spiel I tapped out below.

It took me about 10 minutes to put together the script. The main challenge was to try to put together something that didn’t turn you off by sounding too salesy while also getting across a couple of the reasons why I think new approaches to AI are super important.

Key lessons:

  1. Prune your script – I didn’t want to shell out for the pro version, so I couldn’t use a video of myself talking, and I had to keep the script under one minute. I only get to do one free video with this plan, so I needed to spend a couple of minutes pruning the words down as the free video had to run for less than a minute. This is what I wrote:

Australian universities face some unique challenges with the emergence of a huge range of Generative AI technology. These new apps will impact institutions in multiple dimensions – requiring coordination of multiple actors simultaneously to achieve a satisfactory response.

Pulling together a policy to satisfy TEQSA by mid-year should be the last issue on your mind right now because AI has immediate implications for not just assessment security, but also learning and teaching, productivity, recruitment and brand.

It’s really easy to overlook the potential opportunities available – which could improve the experience of current and future students and prospective students while also improving revenue.

That’s why Nici Sweaney and I are going to be talking to institutions about AI all year, and probably for years to come, to help roll out practical solutions. Generative AI is one of the most interesting areas of exploration and transformation that we have had in the sector in recent times. With incredibly rapid progression, it’s going to take collaborations of many minds to make sure we can make the most of it, while also avoiding serious pitfalls.

  • It’s a godsend for introverts – I have trained more than 1000 academic staff in media training and presentation sessions. Some brilliant but introverted people who will never be good presenters (and never wish to be anywhere near a lectern or video camera) can suddenly better represent themselves with an avatar. This is not going to replace media/presentation training – the capacity to manage conversations and respond to questions effectively is not replicated by this technology. But it will be valued.
  • Be better than the robot – the delivery sounds a little robotic, so your script shouldn’t. It’s true that my script wasn’t great, it could have been fresher, it could have had a bit more of a hook and specific examples to convince you. But I wanted to see what I could do in 10 minutes. AI is many moons away from replacing fresh, engaging content that brings you a new perspective. We need to create that content for the content to hit the target.
  • Consider diversity – I am a Caucasian bloke of muddled but as yet largely unremarkable ancestry (I am convinced I have viking DNA, mainly because of my inability to function efficiently at any temperature above 20 degrees). Is it a positive step towards diversity if I speak with the voice of someone called Natasha and the face of a woman with Asian heritage, or is it cultural appropriation? I couldn’t be sure. None of the voices of the Australian blokes on the app sounded remotely like me, so I decided that there is no reason to get hung up on trying to be my own race or gender for one experimental video. If I was going to do this thing more regularly I would reluctantly pull out my credit card and create a version that looks and sounds like me, as Dr Nici has. However, I would try to make my version a little better looking and with a tuned up radio voice. What’s the point of AI if you can’t self improve after all? Just after I put this together, I read a profile of RF Kuang, the author of Yellowface a book released recently all about the issues of pretending to be a different race for commercial gain – raising a whole bunch of issues which are deserving of further thought. Perhaps if I was going to be an avatar that wasn’t myself, I would choose to either be multiple people, or maybe an anthropomorphised dog. But that discussion is for another day.
  • Multi-channel engagement suddenly got easier – All I had to do was write a script, choose an avatar and press the submit button. For someone like me who writes better than they speak, this is a godsend. I can create copy to engage people, but with very little extra time turn it into a video for the many people who don’t want to read the text. For marketers who want to create a quick message, sure this is a bit wooden, but it is a lot better than a whole lot of presenters. For lecturers, you could save a whole lot of time recording yourself and just process your script into an easy listening / watching experience – particularly when the avatar delivery becomes smoother, as it is bound to do in the next few months.

Check out my avatar and let me know what you think. Maybe our avatar mates can chat for a while.

View the video.

Tim Winkler is Director of Twig Marketing and Publisher of Future Campus. He has worked in the higher education sector for more than 20 years, with a focus on strategy, marketing and revenue growth. He is partnering with AI expert Dr Nici Sweaney to collaborate on new AI solutions for universities.



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