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Putting Some Personality in Your E-mail

April 25, 2001

While e-mail has proven to be an astoundingly versatile tool, it's still an unmitigated disaster when it comes to conveying the non-verbal nuances of face-to-face communication.

As for the typographical shorthand of emoticons, their applications are limited at best and annoying at worst.

How many times have you found yourself trying to convey a very delicate sentiment and thought, "Boy, this really cries out for a little sideways frowny / smiley face"?

The real answer would be video e-mail that's as simple to compose, transmit and receive as plain text. You can bet this won't be happening until high-bandwidth pipes become ubiquitous and cheap.

(Imagine if every piece of garden-variety spam you receive today was suddenly a megabyte or two of video-enhanced spam and you see the problem.)

Recently there was news of an incremental step in the right direction. A Newton, Mass., start-up called LifeFX is perfecting a new e-mail application called Facemail.

The technology replaces standard e-mail text with a semi-realistic talking-head that "speaks" the message. By inserting emoticons in the text, senders cue their digital stand-ins to use one of seven facial expressions -- smile, wink, kiss, frown, angry, disgusted and surprised.

Yes, that is more of an emotional range than some people I know have displayed in years. Still, the end result could be about as subtle as having a Muppet attempt King Lear.

But, LifeFX has gotten a big boost in bringing the product to the mass market when it announced a deal with Kodak in February that could let people convert their own photographs into talking, reusable Internet "stand-ins" within a year.

If Kodak and tiny start-up LifeFX can make the technology work, users could someday use photos as the model for a kind of cyberspace doppelganger. When a friend opens an e-mail, the sender's face would read out the text. Further down the line, the computer could learn to imitate voices.

I'd like to see a slightly different approach. Rather than watch a cast of electronic emissaries, I'd like one on-screen personality -- a virtual newscaster customized to my own specifications -- to read all my mail.

Of course there will be many instances when I want to quickly scan my in-box manually. But I can think of just as many times -- particularly first thing in the morning -- when I'd prefer to have the mail read to me while I attend to other tasks.

After observing how I handle 100 or 1,000 pieces of mail, my virtual sidekick would learn to recognize basic patterns. He would know financial correspondence, family e-mail and friends get read first and bulk mail sent to groups gets read last, if at all.

As for the daily tidal wave of spam, a stricken look would cross his face and he'd intone, "Oh, the horror, the horror . . ."

Spam Be Gone

But then I may not have to wait for my sidekick to eliminate my dealing with spam. A Santa Clara company says it has a fool-proof spam buster.

Internet users type in the e-mail address "" when they register at a Web site. creates a new and disposable proxy address for the user that is submitted in lieu of the person's real address.

The idea is to be able to turn off -- or more precisely, redirect -- a flood of spam that might start to flow after one visits or registers at a Web site. A user can simply close off the proxy address to stop the spam without having to shut down his or her real address.

Mailshell was launched last August and so far, 200,000 users have signed up. The company has filed for a patent on its technology that automatically creates a "shell" around a user's true e-mail address, masking it with Mailshell's no-junk label.

The technology matches the sender to the unique shell address before forwarding the message to the user's real mailbox. From the user's point of view nothing looks different. And once registered the user doesn't have to do anything differently.

The service is free to consumers and includes an e-mail management system. Users can review samples of mail lists before they subscribe and can customize their preferences for different lists.

Mailshell also allows users to set expiration dates for each e-mail shell address to guarantee that one-time purchases, sweepstakes entries or surveys don't unleash a spam avalanche.

The company's quest against spam includes another site: is non-profit and the company hopes it will be fully functional later this year. On it, Mailshell has posted a 10-point e-mail user's bill of rights.

Antonietta Palleschi, Copyright ©2000 Canada Computer Paper Inc


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