Virtual receptionist is a welcome invention in era of staff cutbacks
START-UP NATION: Touchapps:‘Smart Administrative Model’, or Sam for short, provides information to office visitors while saving on staff costs
BUDGET CUTBACKS that left university buildings without receptionists led engineering graduates Prag Sharma and Daniel Leahy to develop a virtual solution.
Now as you enter various buildings across University College Dublin and NUI Galway, you are greeted by their finished product, Sam (Smart Administrative Model).
The virtual receptionist sits at reception instead of a person and helps students and members of the public alike to find lecture theatres, classrooms, toilets, staff contact numbers and so on.
“The Complex and Adaptive Systems Lab (CASL) at UCD had a reception area but no receptionist due to budget cutbacks. All that was in reception was a phone with a mobile number for people to ring,” says Sharma.
“We noticed people would come in and just stand around waiting for someone to pass. They felt uncomfortable just ringing the mobile number to get assistance. We thought there should be a virtual assistant of sorts which is how the idea for Sam came about.”
The two set about developing Sam while still continuing their days jobs, Sharma as a programme manager for the Clique Research Cluster Group and Leahy as a software developer for TRIL (Technology Research for Independent Living).
They developed the virtual assistant solution through their start-up Touchapps at an initial cost of €6,000.
“We didn’t just want a touchscreen virtual assistant. We wanted it to be intuitive, so we recorded videos in English, Irish and Chinese.”
Using video recordings integrated with touchscreen functionality, the virtual assistant talks to the user, guiding and facilitating them to make choices and decisions.
The virtual receptionist provides users with floor plans, taxi numbers, bus routes, staff names and numbers among other things.
“For example, when a courier arrives they can use Sam to contact the specific person to say there is a parcel for them. You can also send an internal mail to someone using the assistant.
“It’s great, not just for students starting university that are unsure where various things are located, but also for second, third and fourth years as it provides an up-to-date list of the various events taking place on campus each day.”
The virtual assistant gathers information such as staff names and office numbers from the university’s central database and displays the information.
The virtual assistant kiosks are also wheelchair friendly, with features for users who have problems with sight or hearing.
But Sharma and Leahy are aware that people sometimes still want human contact.
“We discovered that while Sam is a huge help to people and works very successfully, there are some occasions where people just want to speak to a human. So we’ve created a Skype link from the virtual receptionist to a centrally-located human receptionist,” says Sharma.
“It means the human receptionist can be the receptionist for a lot of different buildings at the same time. Using the virtual assistant terminal users can place a call and have a video chat with the human receptionist.”
The system will save universities and large firms money as they no longer need to have a receptionist in each building, according to Sharma, as they can opt for just the virtual assistant, or a virtual assistant in various buildings all linked to the same human receptionist.
Sharma believes the system will have an obvious appeal, not only to universities but also to under resourced businesses.
“If we have a hold on the university market it makes sense to go down that route, so we’ll look at branching into the UK university market. That said, it will also work well in large firms and SMEs.”
The duo are in negotiations with other third-level institutions, and will soon begin seeking VC funding to expand the company into the business arena.
“We have invested all our own money so far, and thankfully we’ve more than made it back. But we’ll need funding if we’re to expand on a large scale.”
Sharma is also developing Sam’s underlying technology along with Leahy to apply in the online retail sector.
“When it comes to buying things online, people are getting tired of FAQ sections on websites, they want human interaction,” he says.
“Some companies have developed live webchat to assist customers. We’d like to bring it a step further so customers could have live video chat with someone from the company.
“Telepresence is going to become bigger and bigger and we could provide remote video services to help customers at home.”