The Man Behind Intellitar
Many Roanoke alumni have worked their way into interesting careers, but Don Davidson '79 has a job that is more unique than most. He is co-founder and CEO of the Huntsville, Ala.-based company Intellitar, and his mission is to make his clients, well, just a little less unique themselves. That is, his company specializes in creating virtual human clones, called "intelligent avatars," or "intellitars."
To create an intellitar, a client uploads a photo of himself or herself to Intellitar's Virtual Eternity website, completes a personality profile, chooses a stock or customized voice and begins the process of training the avatar's "brain." The client can then direct family and friends to the site to "converse" with the intellitar of their loved one. Lip movement is synched to the spoken words.
The company and its concept have sparked a lot of buzz. Both mainstream and specialty media outlets have reported on the three-year-old company, and last fall "CBS Sunday Morning" featured Davidson in a story reported by Katie Couric.
Chatting with 'virtual Don'
Conversing with a digital being, I discovered, is rather entertaining. Davidson's intellitar was cordial and obliging when asked if he would answer a few questions for the College magazine. We warmed up with some easy background questions:
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia."
"What was your major?"
"I got my Business Administration degree from Roanoke College in 1979."
"Are you married?"
"I've only been married once, to my college sweetheart, Amy."
A jangling telephone interrupted the interview. On the other end was an apologetic Davidson. "So sorry I am late calling you back. I was tied up in a meeting." "No problem, I've been interviewing your intellitar." I told him. "Oh no," (the real) Davidson said. "I hope he didn't embarrass me!"
The Roanoke connection
The College had quite an impact on Davidson's personal and professional lives, as early as his first week on campus. While in registration line on the first day of freshman orientation, Davidson met his future wife, Amy Lichtenstein '79. The couple married in 1981 and has two grown children-whose names and ages Davidson's intellitar is happy to reveal.
Davidson, who was a track athlete and member of the Kappa Alpha Order, keeps in touch with other alumni and has served a term on the President's Advisory Board. "I still have a lot of very good friends from Roanoke College," he said.
Davidson's career path began when IBM interviewed him during an on-campus business department internship fair. He was offered a part-time job helping set up computer systems.
"I enjoyed what I was doing," said Davidson, "and it led to a job at IBM. [The company] was a great training ground."
In fact, Davidson parlayed the internship into a 17-year stint with IBM, where he held middle and senior management positions. He later served as co-founder and CEO of 2C Computing and the Arxceo Corporation and as president of the Digital Desktops Division at Avocent, all companies involved in various sectors of the computer industry.
"The business curriculum [at Roanoke] certainly directed me,' said Davidson, but he added that the liberal arts curriculum "prepares you in a broader way for the types of things that you will engage in in an entrepreneurial business. The ability to interact with people...it applies across the board."
Reaching out or reaching back
These days, "across the board" includes "across cyberspace." With the growth of social networking sites, Davidson sees an increased relevance for what Intellitar offers. Initially conceived as a way to create a digital legacy, Davidson said the whole concept has become much bigger.
Intellitar recently added the capability to link its clients' intellitars to their social networking profiles. Davidson explained that 70 percent of those who engage in social networking maintain multiple profiles on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Match.com. Updating each profile can be a time-consuming process, but clients who link their intellitar to any number of social site profiles can update all of them by updating their intellitar from the central site.
The company also offers "Intelligrams," electronic cards that use the client's animated likeness and voice to send greetings for special occasions.
The Intellitar concept has business applications, as well. The company has partnered with the Somerset Group, a media design firm, to bring historical figures such as Ben Franklin back to life as interactive museum exhibits. A few companies have deployed training avatars.
"We're on the very cutting edge of a number of technologies," Davidson said. "We will soon be able to use gaming platforms to create half-body images that do more. By end of summer, we will be on the third-generation avatar."
In June, the company announced that it had been included in Gartner Inc.'s 2011 report of "Cool Vendors" in Emerging Technologies. The report highlights four vendors that are breaking new ground in virtual presence and media creation.
Creepy or Cool?
Couric's interview with Davidson aired on Halloween. That alone suggests that some people might think the whole idea of cloning one's self - even digitally - is just a little bit creepy.
"We get the 'creepy' thing," Davidson acknowledged, "but we also get the 'cool' factor. Customers think it's cool to...build a digital legacy of yourself."
Davidson said that his mother died a few years ago, and he would love to be able to hear her say a few of the things that made everyone laugh.
Time travel is still a fantasy, but Davidson's company may have created the next best thing.
Visit the Intellitar website at www.intellitar.com.
- SHARON NANZ '09