by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #26-50: Victor Yuen, FaceMe

Mar 28, 2019
Business Continuity Cloud Computing Innovation

Victor Yuen says the chatbot and virtual assistant market is estimated to grow beyond $40 billion in the next 10 years, and human connections will be reduced to less than 15 per cent of customer interactions.

FaceMe has moved head on into this market.

“Organisations understand they are creating a problem for themselves by drastically reducing the emotional connection they have with their customers and that this, in turn, could directly impact brand value, revenue growth and churn,” says Yuen. “We call this digital commoditisation.”

Yuen, who is head of product and technology lead at FaceMe, says the innovations in this space come “on a day to day basis”.

“Given how nascent the digital human space is, much of what we do is innovative in nature,” he says.

“Also, by operating at such a rapid pace and with limited resources – we are forced to find new ways to do things and then constantly iterate.”

He says his team is focused on developing world leading technology that will deliver amazing user experiences that would address the growing demand for personalised customer engagements.

Our digital human platform is a next generation conversational interface for kiosks, browsers and mobiles. The platform uses advanced machine learning to incorporate key human qualities such as facial expressions and gestures, to provide highly customised interactions in real time. These, in turn, creates an emotional connection with customers.

Today, the platform is now available with simple APIs, allowing the enterprise customer or a chatbot product company to easily reimagine and create powerful customer experiences that embody their brand and increase value in a digital world, says Yuen.

Two years ago, digital humans were largely unheard of, says Yuen, on how they had pioneered in the technology.

“But when you decide to march ‘right off the map’ in terms of what has been done before, you often end up creating the mechanisms that allow you to set up camp in new territory,” he says.

He says the platform they have now is mature, stable and available across mobile, kiosk and web.

“This has involved the creation of brand new tools, processes and technology – a number of which are ‘world-firsts’ in this space.”

Some of the work they have been doing is the ability to generate incredibly lifelike digital human heads really fast.

This, he says, can be done by either ‘cloning’ a real human such as an existing employee like what they did with UBS, or “synthesising” a completely new digital human from various inputs and images. This is what FaceMe has done for ASB and Vodafone.

“To do so, we have created an optimised production pipeline which includes technology that allows us to combine multiple historical heads to create a new one,” says Yuen.

“Our procedural animation system also allows us to scale our work across multiple digital humans – further reducing time to implement.”

Yuen says the delivery of digital human experiences is very resource and infrastructure intensive.

Many environments and varying pieces of hardware need to be deployed and often we do not have control of these environments, he states.

He says to improve their quality and efficiency, FaceMe has adopted the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) ethos.

This has paid dividends in being able to do more with less and we are seeing significant benefits in our ability to deploy more quickly and proactively identify issues, he says.

He says the organisation is also investing heavily in continuous integration and deployment.

Most of their digital humans do not work at FaceMe’s offices, so they had to find effective ways to achieve and manage deployment, kiosk deployment and remote management to client offices/locations.

“Through experience, we have a much better understanding of hardware and network risks that are inevitable with enterprise deployments,” he says.

“We’ve learnt the usual pitfalls of deployment and support and have developed processes to smooth deployment, liaising with customer teams (like security) and ongoing support.

He says bringing together gaming/movie, real time communications and artificial intelligence technology is a complex undertaking. “The complexity of doing this at scale and quickly is incredibly challenging,” he says.

But that is the uniqueness of their innovation, he says.

“It’s a nascent area where nobody has paved the way for us to follow. Our ability to achieve this has paid incredible dividends on the commercial side. We now have a marketplace reputation for delivering on time at a high quality and are incredibly easy to work with.”

He says the company’s rapid growth and iteration undoubtedly creates stress on the team.

“We are constantly reassessing and evolving,” he says.

“Our leadership team is very connected and we communicate effectively on strategy for each of our teams. The result is a very coordinated leadership.”

He says the team operates on agile principles and avoids being too rigid in their approach.

“As a leader, I ensure the team are engaged in any changes and often these changes are co-created with the team. Largely our teams are self-organised and this gives everyone a sense of ownership over decisions that are made.”

“I see the main purpose of my role as one that facilitates an environment which unleashes potential and allows people to achieve their best.

“I know the strengths and desires of my team intimately and when we have a new problem to solve, I connect the right team members and act as an interface.

“My role is to recognise the opportunities for improvement, and empower those team members capable of finding solutions.”

He says an important lesson for him throughout his career is the importance of building a great team.

“If you believe in each other and your product, you can win any, and I mean any, battle,” he says.

He recalls that during the early days of FaceMe, they had pivoted the company from a videoconferencing solutions provider to creating digital humans.

“It was a very big mountain to climb.”

“We understood and had some parts of the platform already, but there were areas that were completely unknown and major risks,” he says.

He knew that they could handle this by building an “incredibly smart team” and trusting them to solve the problem.

“During this challenging period, suggestions were made from the team to look for people that could help,” he says. They were fortunate to find a few key hires to augment the team.

“These few, combined with our existing team, took us a quantum leap forward – moving from no chance to the market leader.”