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Dec 1, 2017,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Air New Zealand: Sophie, a virtual member of the customer services team

Following on from its chatbot Oscar, Air New Zealand is going one step further for its clients by offering a virtual assistant called Sophie, a "digital human" who responds to users’ questions about their trip or about New Zealand. Created by avatar specialists Soul Machines, this artificial staff member has a face that moves when she speaks and can learn from her conversations with real humans.

Airplane Air New Zealand


Like many other airlines, Air New Zealand has decided to enrich its customer service offer with a virtual assistant. But the system it recently presented to the public, called Sophie, is more than just an automated response tool or chatbot, something the company already had in Oscar. Sophie is an intelligent avatar that looks human and wears the same uniform as the airline’s other employees. She acts as a virtual member of the customer services team, talking to the airline’s current and future passengers.


A creation from the people behind the special effects in Avatar and King Kong


As reported on the website Tom Travel, Sophie was developed with the help of Soul Machines, a company that specialises in the development of avatars. The company’s managing director, Mark Sagar, won two Oscars for the special effects in King Kong and Avatar.

In order to create Sophie, just like for its other projects, the Auckland-based company used its knowledge of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and its expertise in creating visuals of artificial faces that can move and speak.



The contribution of Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence


As a result, Sophie has the appearance of a human being and the skills of a machine when she is called to answer the requests and questions of the digital service’s users. Watson, the AI developed by IBM, enables this virtual employee to understand and answer the questions, while gradually learning from these client interactions.

Unveiled a few weeks ago at a conference in Los Angeles (United States), the avatar has been programmed to respond orally to the airline’s passengers about the flights and different services available. But Sophie can also satisfy the curiosity of users who want to learn more about New Zealand. And all with a kiwi accent that leaves no doubt about this virtual employee’s nationality!


This “digital human” even has an emotional dimension  


For Greg Cross, chief business officer at Soul Machines, Sophie and the company’s other creations are “some of the world’s first emotionally responsive and interactive digital humans.” This technological progress has delighted Jodi Williams, Air New Zealand’s General Manager of Global Brand and Content Marketing, who summarised “We’re always looking for new ways to improve the travel experience and solve pain points with digital innovation. We’re excited to have had the opportunity to (…) explore new ways to approach customer experience.”


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