We chatted with Natalie Monbiot, Head of Business at Hour One, to learn how AI and synthetic characters can transform business and organizational digital learning and storytelling initiatives.
Using Digital in New Ways to Improve or Maintain the In-Classroom Experience
What springs to mind with the terms ‘digital content’ in eLearning today?
There’s been a massive disruption where digital learning has in most cases just become learning. I think that with anything that goes digital, the first thing that occurs is taking the analog and just basically copy and pasting it into digital. We’re now at a point where that’s not enough—it can’t be enough in the world of education. It’s not a good enough experience to take an analog lesson and deliver it the same way online. This is because the elements that made that lesson as it was conceived—interesting, engaging and to create rapport—are missing.
So when I think about digital content and eLearning, I think about how educators can leverage digital in a way that maintains or improves the engagement of an in-person classroom experience. But you need new tools and new methods to do that because you’re dealing with a completely different medium. One is reality and in-person and the other one is completely digital. It’s important to understand the capabilities and the properties of a digital medium, and to explore the new possibilities and be able to integrate what makes sense in order to deliver a better educational experience.
How does Hour One help organizations through video?
We’re a video transformation company. What I find so exciting about it is that so many industries, in one way or another, have been disrupted, but photographic video capture has not actually evolved. Apart from the fact that now you have a camera on your smartphone, which is a huge deal, you still need a camera in order to capture video. This has been the case up until now, and to capture studio-quality video you need the camera, the studio, the talent, and the crew. You need to be on location, together and it’s expensive. And that’s very hard.
And so the opportunity now is that we can actually replace cameras with code. Now you can create video content using code, and that transition is enormous because you don’t need any of the things that I mentioned that are associated with a camera. You can put those to the side and you can just make video using computers. That is really interesting and important for eLearning because you can create studio-quality presenter-led videos as quickly as you can make anything with code. You can now automate that process of creating teacher-led content and not ask teachers to sit in front of the camera and record themselves doing lessons, which is not their skill. Their skill is coming up with lessons, content, ideas, and new ways to engage.
Our technology frees teachers to focus on what they do best and we take care of the production side of things. A teacher or an education institution can now write the lesson and upload it with the imagery into our platform and hit a button, and in a few minutes have all that text generated into a teacher persona delivering a lesson, with all the associated imagery in a finished video. That’s the opportunity.
Then there’s also an additional opportunity depending on the strategy. We can also transpose real teachers into this digital space if they want to be the face of the digital content and their videos. Either way, organizations and institutions can pick from one of our 100+ characters which are representative of different age groups and ethnicities, or they can become a character themselves.
Creating Personable and Flexible Video Content at Scale
How does the production work if teachers want to become the character or persona for their videos?
If the teacher wants to be featured in the videos, we arrange a shoot and require a studio to achieve the best quality capture. The Hour One team dials in through a video conference and directs a short shoot to grab about four minutes worth of video footage. No special equipment or anything is required. We just ensure we have the right lighting and setup to create the best result. We then digitize that footage, and once we’ve created the digital character we can have it say any content the customer wants.
How are organizations responding to this technology?
We have done some interesting projects in the eLearning space, and what’s been really fascinating is that customers see our product as solving a true need. Clients adopt the technology because it can actually be transformative for their business. For example, we’re working with a language school and its desire is to essentially scale the classroom experience digitally. We used eight different teacher personas and we have them teaching three languages at different learning levels, creating a total of 13,000 videos in just phase one. So, that gives you a sense of the scale of what this technology can make possible. Endless content can be created.
With our characters, you can make content whenever you want and it’s always consistent and available. We offer organizations a flexible and friction-free ability to generate video content.
In fact, we recently partnered with Berlitz to help scale its instructor-led learning program and digitally transform its business. Check out the video to learn more.
By using these types of technologies, are we in danger of losing the human component of instruction?
I think that many people hope that the in-person education experience comes back as quickly as possible. And in that world, what we offer is supplemental content. We never seek to replace the human experience—that’s always number one. However, sometimes that model isn’t possible or it’s not scalable, so you might want to combine both: AI-driven video and in-person learning. I see our solution as being a hybrid learning experience and an extension of the classroom.
Are the characters intelligent?
Our virtual characters are not intelligent. They communicate the content that they’re instructed to communicate; they become a tool and an extension of the learning program and the teacher that’s in charge of the curriculum. So they become an engaging interface to deliver content in the best possible way, digitally.
We’ve tried to be extremely responsible about how we launched the technology. In fact, we insist on disclosure within the frame of the video that the video has been computer-generated to respect the users’ right to know.
Key Elements of Engaging Video Content
What are some of the key elements to creating engaging and interactive video content?
We started from scratch two years ago and what we’ve learned about video production has been interesting. We started by being obsessed with the character and making sure that it was really high quality, very expressive, and not mechanical. We’ve found to be key because you want the character to make people feel comfortable, and immerse themselves in the experience.
We focus on shorter videos, which is essential for any on-demand experience. Video needs to be shorter and more concise. Our videos are scripted, so you can be very deliberate about what’s included. Something else that we learned and have incorporated into our product is to actually provide a fully produced video experience, beyond just the presenter. Since video is an audio-visual medium and we want to use the full capacity of video to draw people in. Sometimes you want your digital media to overcompensate, as a lot of expression can be lost in the remote learning experience.
For a Pre-K audience, for instance, we wondered how we could instill some of the magic of what a Pre-K class experience is like and incorporated it into the video. We created a fun video template with colors and the kind of graphics and music kids like, making the whole experience entertaining and immersive. Now, what we offer as part of our solution isn’t just the character, but the whole experience. We build templates that enable you to automate that type of video to produce it at scale and in multiple languages.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
We are constantly working to build solutions to make our technology as accessible and useful as possible—aimed at customers with no video production or coding experience. We recently launched a fully automated video creation platform where you can create fully-produced videos, at scale, in minutes, just from text. If this sounds interesting, you can submit to make a video on our website here.