Virtual newsreader Frank WhiteWeb sites can attract bigger audiences by introducing virtual newsreaders, according to Daden, the UK-based developer of a new 'newsbot'.

The newsbot, or avatar, is an animated character that reads news to web visitors.

Daden's newsbot can be set to read an RSS feed - a simple string of the latest news headlines from a site.

"The beauty of our system is that it doesn't require any changes or hard interfaces to existing sites in order to read the news – it just needs the RSS feeds," said Daden's managing director David Burden.

"Initially this is about novelty - doing things that other sites aren’t doing to capture new visitors and show that you are keeping up with technology."

Retail sites in the US claim that avatars have increased traffic by as much 200 per cent. Daden said that avatars can encourage a more trusting relationship between a user and a website, particularly with younger audiences, and also open up the internet for blind or visually-impaired users.

There are similar avatar-based 'presenters' on sports site
ESPN, US forecast service AccuWeather and most famously on UK news site Ananova, credited with the world's first virtual newscaster.

The cost of virtual newsreaders has been prohibitive until now, but a simple newsbot can cost around £500. The firm is also offering a half price deal until the end of May 2005.

The newsbot's background can be tailored to include company logos or images, although TV news-style photos for each story might be a little more difficult to synchronise.

Some common re-phrasing is built in to the newsbot's program and more complex phrases, such as brand names, can be added. Daden offers guidelines on writing headlines and stories that suit text-to-speech format. Tips include avoiding abbreviations and jargon and using punctuation effectively to ensure the correct inflection in words and sentences.

Daden has been working with a chatbot tool for a couple of years and added its RSS reader in late 2004. A demo version on the Daden site allows users to test a newsbot on any RSS news feed.

Daden's next product is designed to help readers navigate websites using audio. 'ReaderBot' will be launched at the Sight Village event in July.

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