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AI hosts fuel livestream shopping bonanza

China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-20 09:10

A livestreaming host introduces a product with an AI-backed host during the Singles Day shopping festival in Nov, 2020. [Photo/China News Service]

HANGZHOU-"OMG!" and "Buy it! Buy it!" were some of the catchphrases that an AI-powered virtual host picked up from China's "King of Lipstick" Li Jiaqi, the cosmetic salesman who once sold 15,000 lipstick tubes in just five minutes through livestreaming.

Over the years, AI-driven sales have emerged as a new force in China's fast-growing livestreaming e-commerce industry, where cartoon avatars cheer, dance and rap to promote products.

During China's annual Singles Day shopping spree on Nov 11, multiple brands such as Philips, L'Oreal, Unilever and L'Occitane used virtual hosts to promote their products online.

In recent years, China's online outlets and brands have increasingly hired social media influencers with large fan followings or professional salespersons to help promote their products via livestreaming. While the streamer presents the products, product links and vouchers appear on the screen for viewers.

Two of the country's major online shopping platforms, Taobao and JD, have both launched their own livestreaming platforms, Taobao Live and JD Live, which have fueled the trend of livestreaming e-commerce.

The scale of the country's livestreaming e-commerce industry reached 433 billion yuan ($65.7 billion) last year and is expected to double by the end of this year, a report by global accounting firm KPMG and AliResearch showed.

Meanwhile, AI-powered virtual hosts are entering the industry as they offer a cost-efficient and feasible alternative to hiring real people, according to industry insiders.

In livestreaming e-commerce, however, AI hosts are still new players, according to experts from e-commerce platform Alibaba.

"After using the AI broadcaster, we noticed record views every day," said Xiang Jing, who is in charge of the Philips outlet on the Tmall shopping platform, adding that nearly 80,000 people watched the livestream during the peak hours.

"In some core indicators, the AI host is on par with its human counterparts," Xiang said.

The host, developed by Alibaba's Damo Academy, can adjust its facial expressions and gestures to achieve an intended effect. For example, when the virtual host screams "OMG," the facial expressions and body language correspond to express surprise.

Zhao Kun, who led the development of the AI hosts at the Damo Academy, said the technology requires a set of complex algorithms and engineering, including visual, audio and natural language processing, to enable the avatar to interact with viewers.

"Though new and fun, it is still a bit weird," said Xie Xuan, a Beijing resident who watched an AI-host session, "I prefer a real host, but I wouldn't mind as long as vouchers and discounts are offered."

Virtual hosts have unleashed new opportunities for companies in promoting their brands.

Three Squirrels, a snack company which achieved sales of 8 million yuan via livestreaming from Nov 1 to 3 driven by an AI host, plans to create cartoon characters based on its logo to be used as virtual hosts in future livestreaming sessions.

"With the new image, we want to explore more possibilities for marketing the brand," said Li Shucai, in charge of the brand's livestreaming business.


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