BARCELONA, MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS 2012 — In Russia, if you want to come up with a mascot for your company or a character for your app, there’s no focus groups or testing: it all comes from the top down.
That’s why when Russian app development and publishing company iFree wanted to release a new virtual assistant for Android and iOS to take on Siri, i-Free’s Kirill Petrov dictated the design of i-Free’s latest character. He would be an all white, gremlin-like humanoid with huge flashing teeth and glowing yellow eyes. He would hail from the planet Edelweiss (named after a beer), and he would come to Earth in the time-honored tradition of many alien invaders before him: namely to kidnap our women for his own lascivious pleasure.
Meet Spoony. He’s terrifying. He uses much of the same core technology as Siri, the distant relation he’d eventually like to kill, or at least surplant. Presumably after making out with her first.
Spoony is one of two of the main virtual assistant characters in i-Free’s Pocket Blonde: Everfriends, an Android-for-now sequel to Pocket Blonde, their first virtual assistant app. And while i-Free will be the first to admit that Spoony is a divisive character (you can choose between him or a sexy blonde in glasses, appropriately named Blondie) i-Free believes that personalizing the virtual assistant and making it fun is the key to getting most people to adopt one.
Although the app looks a little corny, Everfriends is based upon i-Free’s own backend that plucks intelligent answers from Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia and more, parsed through i-Free’s own natural language technology, acquired from a company that spent a decade perfecting computer-understood speech. In other words, the technology behind Everfriends is sound, even if Spoony’s character design is not.
According to i-Free, Everfriends is a reaction to the explosive interest that came in virtual assistants once Apple released Siri. Everyone wants a virtual assistant now, but Android’s own voice commands do so much, and on iOS, Siri is only available on certain models.
More than that, though, not everyone wants a straight Siri clone. What a lot of people want — especially in emerging markets like Russia, Asia, South America and Africa — is to have a virtual assistant that is fun.
“Fun” is the pervading design ethos behind Everfriends. Everfriends runs the usual gamut of Siri clone functions: it can deliver weather forecasts, set alarms, give you news and reminders, and even serve yoyu up maps and directions. But Siri won’t play a game of chess with you, or act sexy when you tickle her, or even just catch your morbid fascination by dressing up as a milk white monster from beyond the stars.
For a lot of us Apple folks, that’s the way we like it. But for many people, fun is the primary consideration when it comes to what interface you use to interact your machine. Technology, after all, is a very intimidating thing for most of the people around the world… especially emerging markets that barely even had silicon just a few short years ago.
Which is exactly why Everfriends has already racked up 700k on the Android Marketplace since it launched in December. And while it’s not the Apple way, i-Free is optimistic it will do at least as well when it debuts on the iOS App Store in the coming months, hideous, sex-hungry goblin or no.
Pocket Blonde: Everfriends is a free download on the Android Market. iOS version coming soon.