Ask Gretchen

Imagine having an online video conversation with someone who really isn’t there.

You can type questions and ask people anything at all, what they had for breakfast or how a product works. While the responses have been previously recorded on video, the answers are offered so seamlessly it’s as if you’re engaging in a real conservation.

Welcome to the synthetic interview (SI), technology that was developed by Carnegie Mellon researchers back in the 1990s as part of a $50 million federal research project called the Informedia Digital Library. The idea, at the time, was to build search engines and visual technologies for all types of media.

The only problem is that it has taken 14 years for the technology behind language learning and streaming media to catch up, says Alex Hauptmann, the CMU professor and Informedia project leader who has continued the work through the years.

Timing, of course, is everything.

Today, Hauptmann is the founder of Vidas Interactive, a Pittsburgh-based startup that is working with several serial entrepreneurs to turn the synthetic interview into a lucrative product and take it to the next level.

Hauptmann is working alongside Scott Dunlop, a media mogul, branding expert and technology entrepreneur from Orange County who also happens to be the creator and executive producer of the popular TV series “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

Joining them is John Lucke, a Pittsburgh technology veteran. Together the trio is working to develop the technology as a selling and engagement tool in bringing products (and people) to market.

Dunlop says he found it unlike anything he’s ever seen in the industry before. It offers companies with products to sell, or celebrities and wanna-be celebrities, the tools to create interactive online video profiles inexpensively through stored and indexed video clips.

“I became fascinated with it as an engagement tool. In my business, I see people who are unknown in the zeitgeist of reality TV suddenly become someone people want to know,” he says. “It’s a gamechanger.”

“Computer-human interactions will only be more commonplace in the future,” says Lucke. “We’re taking ‘the selfie’ and turning it into the ‘KnowMe.’ It’s a sort of video Siri.”

Vidas Interactive holds the exclusive global license to the SI technology for six vertical markets including consumer-facing and social networking, telecommunications, entertainment, automotive, computing and financial services.

The immediate goal is to create an app and release a beta version of KnowMe in the next six months.

“We’re standing on the precipice of many opportunities,” says Dunlop. “Our focus right now is on the social media side. We want to develop the app and make it universal.”

Try it by typing questions to reality star Gretchen Rossi ‘s KnowMe profile in this beta version.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...