And now a word from our virtual idol

Picture this. It’s a Thursday night in the big city and a young woman is dining out at a sophisticated Italian eatery, enjoying a cappuccino with friends. She looks great in her Patrick Cox designer shoes, DKNY dress, and Urban Decay makeup. Trendy music is playing in the background. You stare fascinated at the screen as she relates a humorous story about embarrassing herself in front of her latest heartthrob.

Another eye-grabbing moment from your favorite TV program? Not quite. Meet Rei, a university student and Virtual Idol – a computer-generated character that appeals to a specific consumer segment. Rei exists at the intersection of entertainment and e-commerce. She’s an approachable role model whose soap-opera-like experiences resonate with your average Web-savvy young adult. As more and more adolescents are finding satisfying communal experiences online, it’s time for an Internet-based character whose wired life mirrors their own. But the difference between Rei and her television counterparts is that Rei can interact with her viewers.

Love her shoes? Click on them and you’ll be taken to a Web site where you can make your purchase and have the new shoes delivered to your home. Want the music that was playing in the restaurant? A simple click of the mouse and you’ve ordered the CD.

This is the next great leap in celebrity identification. The Virtual Idol capitalizes on the marketing opportunities made possible by the highly interactive nature of the Internet. Take the popularity of Lara Croft, the sexy, digital, superstar heroine of the hot video game Tomb Raider. Lara is the first personality to achieve superstar status as a Virtual Idol. She’s been ‘interviewed’ by Esquire, has hundreds of Web pages devoted to her, was used by U2 in a concert rock video. Lara was also named among Time Digital’s “Top 50 Shakers of the Digital World”.

All of this proves just how influential a Virtual Idol can be on today’s young Internet users. With Rei, this identification becomes even more personal because the viewer has the ability to buy, while the plot unfolds. Retailers can conduct transactions at the precise moment that the viewer’s emotional involvement with the narrative is at its highest.

Rei is just one of the innovations currently in development at NCR’s Financial Services Knowledge Lab, where the future of banking, electronic commerce, and retail is studied and understood – before it happens. The Knowledge Lab brings together creative minds from a variety of disciplines, including biophysics, neuroscience, animation, economics, consumer science, psychology, interactive art, and philosophy.

Through its Lab, the company is examining such key questions as:

• Is it possible to combine the appeal of a television soap opera with the transactional capability of a ‘click and buy’ web site?

• Will it have sufficient appeal to the intended consumer segment?

• Will consumers buy products and services this way?

• How do these issues enhance the purchasing experience and frequency of buying over the Internet?

Both retailers and bankers are discovering the potential of moving onto the Internet. The tantalizing prospect of new, more cost-effective channels of distribution is simply too powerful to ignore. The challenge is to find new ways to make E-commerce a more entertaining, pleasurable experience. The entertainment factor of Virtual Idols is perhaps one innovative way to foster the loyalty and attention of consumers.

Bill Wright is Director of Electronic Commerce for NCR Corporation, London, England.