Intel Unveils Pocket Avatars Mobile Messaging App

The app uses facial- and head-tracking technologies to enable avatars to reflect the expressions of the person sending the chat message.

Intel app

A day after Intel introduced new capabilities that will enable major cloud players such as Google and Facebook to more easily customize high-end Xeon server processors to better run their varied workloads, the giant chip maker unveiled a mobile messaging app that advances the use of emoticons.

Intel on June 19 showed off what it is calling Pocket Avatars, an app born out of Intel Labs that uses facial tracking technology to recognize expressions and then have those expressions reflected on the avatars, which are seen by the person on the other end of the chat.

"Pocket Avatars uses a mobile device's standard camera and microphone to capture a user's facial expressions, head movements and voice to create and send personalized 3-D video animated messages using avatar characters," Mike Bell, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel's New Devices Group, wrote in a post on the company blog. "Our goal with this introduction is to explore the exciting market opportunities around mobile chat, while bringing consumers a new and interesting way to connect, communicate, have fun and sometimes just be silly."

The app can be downloaded for free from Apple's App Store and Google Play.

The Pocket Avatars app uses sophisticated facial- and head-tracking technology, and leverages algorithms that factor in such image conditions as changing light and moving subjects, according to Bell. Through all that, the app can evoke various facial expressions from 3D models—the avatars can smile, blink, raise and lower eyebrows, stick out their tongues and blow kisses. The avatar will reflect if the person is happy and laughing or angry and frowning.

A person with the Pocket Avatar app can open the message in an app. If they don't have the app, a user can send the message to them by text message, email or social media, Bell said.

The app initially comes with more than 40 avatars, ranging from LEGO characters and Mr. Bill to the San Diego Chicken and the online sensation Annoying Orange. Many of them are free; others cost 99 cents for unlimited use.

The Pocket Avatars app is an illustration of a larger push within Intel to leverage its vast R&D capabilities to move the company into growth areas beyond its traditional PC and server processors. The company is growing its presence in the data center, is making moves to become a bigger player in the mobile device space, and is looking to gain traction in such new and growing areas as software-defined networking (SDN) and the Internet of things (IoT).

And while it may seem simple, over-the-top (OTT) messaging—messages sent through software—is a big and growing part of the tech industry. Analysts at Informa Telecoms and Media last year said as many as 41 million OTT messages were sent in 2013 over such messaging services as WhatsApp, Numbuzz, TextNow and BlackBerry Messenger, and that number is expected to climb. In February, Facebook officials announced that the social networking giant would spend $19 billion for WhatsApp as a way of attracting and retaining younger users.

Intel's New Devices Group was created a day after CEO Brian Krzanich took the reins of the company in May 2013, with the job of delving into new areas for the company, such as wearable devices. In an email to employees at the time, Krzanich said the new unit was tasked with "rapidly turning brilliant technical and business model innovations into products that shape and lead markets." The new Pocket Avatars app dovetails with that description.

Bell said in his blog that "over the coming weeks and months we plan to improve the app with new features and capabilities. These include a constant stream of new avatars and improved tracking technology with new facial expressions that operate in a broader range of lighting environments."