No 'Drop and give me 20'

Next IT brings recruit-friendly avatar to Army

Project Overview

Project: Virtual recruiter for GoArmy.com

Agency: Army

Partners: Army Accessions Command and Next IT Corp.

Goal: To answer questions from potential recruits.

Obstacles: The majority of questions are asked repeatedly, and the Army needed an effective way to provide correct, consistent answers.

Solution: An online character named Sgt. Star, powered by artificial intelligence, helps visitors get answers to their questions.

Payoff: Visitors spend more time on the site and get the information they seek.

"So Sgt. Star provided Army recruiters with another outlet for understanding what was top-of-mind for potential recruits." ? Patrick Ream, Next IT

Dressed in fatigues and wearing a black beret, Sgt. Star's stern look doesn't reveal the real man. Unlike drill sergeants in the movies, Sgt. Star is patient and tries to answer every question.

That's because he is a computer-generated avatar powered by artificial intelligence on the Army's recruiting Web site, GoArmy.com.

Launched about a year ago, the tool helps potential recruits navigate the Web site and find information, said Paula Spilman, an information technology project manager at the Army Accessions Command.

"With GoArmy.com being such a large Web site, Sgt. Star serves as a way to personalize a search," Spilman said. "He can answer individuals' questions and provide them with a verbal and text response."

The solution also points users to related Web pages within the site for more information. It has more than 15,000 pages of content, so an effective search tool is critical to its success.

The site offered chat rooms before Sgt. Star, but officials found that about 60 percent of potential recruits' questions were asked repeatedly.

"That is one of the reasons we developed Sgt. Star," Spilman said. "We thought there's got to be a better way to do this."

So Army officials worked with Next IT Corp., of Spokane, Wash., to develop Sgt. Star using the company's ActiveAgent application, said Patrick Ream, Next IT's vice president of marketing.

ActiveAgent is an interactive, conversational device that enables online users to communicate with it using natural language. It is a proprietary application based on artificial intelligence.

So far, it has proven to be a success for the Army, Ream said.

"If you look at the statistics coming out of the Army, they say that it is over 92 percent accurate," he said. "That is pretty phenomenal when you consider that when someone asks a question, there are thousands of different ways that that single question can be asked."

ActiveAgent looks at phrasing, word usage, intent and other factors, and boils them down to a single concept.

"What differentiates us from, say, a search engine or other technologies is we provide one response?not a bunch of links like if I went to a search engine," Ream said.

In most cases, the 8 percent of questions for which Sgt. Star doesn't come up with the right answers are off-topic, the result of people trying to stump the bot, Ream said.

The anonymity of the Web has boosted Sgt. Star's popularity. People visiting the Army's site might find meeting with a live recruiter too intimidating, or they might not be ready to commit. For a simple fact-finding mission, the application provides a conversational way of learning about life in the Army.

"When we first started deploying the software, we asked, 'What's the scope of the knowledge that Sgt. Star is going to have?' " Ream said.

First, Sgt. Star was given information already available on the site. Then, after several rounds of focus-group testing, Next IT and the Army identified other key questions users had for which the site lacked answers.

Many people, for example, ask if they would have access to private showers during basic training. The answer was not previously available on the site. By the way, the answer is no. There are no private showers, just rooms with several shower heads.

"So Sgt. Star provided Army recruiters with another outlet for understanding what was top-of-mind for potential recruits," Ream said.

After using ActiveAgent to integrate the available assets, Next IT officials did some programming to make the Army's agent smart.

ActiveAgent is not tied to a specific platform, so clients have used it with Microsoft, Sun Microsystems' Solaris and Java, and many other platforms, Ream said.
The agent doesn't have to be associated with a character or avatar, but in the Army's case, both made sense.

"I think it is the coolness factor," Spilman said. "It capitalizes on our audience's interest in gaming. Sgt. Star was actually a character out of one of the earlier versions of the 'America's Army' game."

That coolness factor appears to be working. Before Sgt. Star, the average session time on GoArmy.com was four minutes. Now it is up to 16 minutes and trending toward 17 minutes. Those numbers are important to recruiters.

"We not only want to attract people to the Web site, we want to keep them online longer," Spilman said. "Once we get them online ,and we get them in a position to receive additional information about the Army, we're hoping they'll learn
something they didn't know, like about our jobs or money for college."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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