Startup FaceMe is providing Vodafone NZ with virtual human helpers for its Auckland stores - and hopes to parlay the deal into global business with the telco.

The idea is that if you arrive at Vodafone St Lukes and there's a queue to speak to an actual assistant, you'll be able to turn to a kiosk supplied by FaceMe and talk to a virtual person.

The virtual, on-screen human will field basic questions, freeing up staff to deal with more complex issues - though FaceMe also reckons its virtual assistant is good enough to establish an emotional connection with a customer (judge for yourself here).

The telco won't say how many stores will get the kiosks, but says they'll be up and running by Christmas.


FaceMe chief operating officer Bradley Scott says the virtual human's responses will partly rely on information supplied by Vodafone. But, like all FaceMe virtual assistants, it will also employ IBM's Watson artificial intelligence technology and FaceMe's own smarts to learn responses and read visual cues.

Scott won't comment on FaceMe's financials, but says the 25-person company is in talks with potential customers around the world. It already numbers ASB, MPI (at Auckland Airport) and, overseas, UBS Bank in Switzerland among its clients.

AI assistants are usually associated with corporates. FaceMe's local rival Soul Machines (which also mixes its own tech with that licensed from IBM) has deployed virtual assistants for Air New Zealand and ANZ.

But Scott says "we want to move down market as soon as possible" and make AI assistants available to medium or even small businesses.

In previous Herald coverage, FaceMe raised the prospect of a small business being able to bag a digital assistant for around $25,000. Today, Scott was wary of giving any specific figure, saying it would depend on the context and customisation.

A Facebook implementation could be a 3D face that appears on a special kiosk; one that sits on the web where it can be viewed on a PC or smartphone or any screen, or a more straightforward voice-only assistant.

"Our vision is to bring digital humans to everyone, not just ... big enterprises," Scott says.

The market for digital assistants is increasingly crowded, and all of the multinational techs are wading in.


How can a relative minnow like FaceMe stand out?

Scott says the likes of Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Google's Assistant technology are one-size-fits-all, whereas FaceMe always creates a custom assistant to fit a client's brand.