‘SuperBuddies’ Rear Their 3D Heads

In an attempt to create more enticements to use its flagship service, America Online plans to launch “SuperBuddies” — comical, animated and sound-enhanced 3D icons for its IM service.

Viewable only by AOL 9.0 Optimized subscribers, SuperBuddies appear within in instant message conversation windows and react to chatters’ emoticons, abbreviations, and Away messages — giving a wink, for instance, when a user types “;-)”.

Users of earlier AOL versions, or of the company’s free AOL Instant Messenger service, will see only a static, 2D graphic instead of a full-fledged SuperBuddy when chatting with a 9.0 user.

The company envisions members sharing and trading SuperBuddies, and using different Buddies to convey different moods — similarly to how it says members currently use its static IM icons. Version 9.0 of the service will launch with about 50 icons, but plans to ramp up to more than 100 over the next year.

To create the SuperBuddies, AOL tapped professional computer animators at Glendale, Calif.’s Creative Capers Entertainment and New York-based Viewpoint, which also s providing the 3D technology powering the icons. AOL has been embedding Viewpoint’s graphics engine in its software since America Online version 7.0, released in 2002.

AOL said it conceived of the SuperBuddies idea due in part to research that found that 85 percent of IM users who customize their instant messaging applications do so using special Buddy Icons.

The SuperBuddies effort continues initiatives to add value to the America Online service — which is struggling to increase its membership in competition with Internet ISPs, and, to a lesser extent, other online services like MSN. Similarly, AOL recently began offering free IM Expressions themes to America Online subscribers, while charging users a small fee for their use by Internet users of the free AIM service.

While it currently has no plans to offer SuperBuddies to AIM users — either with or without a fee — spokespeople from the company said they are considering it.

As it has attempted with Expressions in the past, AOL also said it is mulling using SuperBuddies as a marketing platform. Initially, the first set of icons will include caricature versions of comic Ben Stiller — who will star in Warner Bros.’ upcoming feature film “Starsky and Hutch.” Also in the lineup is TV personality Star Jones, and AOL plans to add more celebrities to SuperBuddies to foster interest in the service.

AOL is promoting the SuperBuddies feature with a new campaign running on its properties, dubbed “AOL 9.0 Optimized is Coming.”

In addition to SuperBuddies, AOL 9.0 Optimized also will introduce a slew of new instant messaging features. Those enhancements include support for file transfer and digital photo-sharing, instant messaging bots like AOLYellowPages, streaming voice chatting, and record-and-forward video chats. (Unlike the new AOL voice IM service, 9.0’s video addition isn’t streaming — a provision that sidesteps the Federal Communication Commission’s prohibition of advanced streaming IM-based services such as videoconferencing.)

AOL 9.0 also will include a special window for catching instant messages from unknown users — useful in curtailing IM spam.

“On AOL, Buddy Icons are already so popular they’ve become an online buzz indicator of what’s hot,” said David Gang, executive vice president for AOL products for America Online. “Our members change icon expressions based on their moods and opinions, or as fans of favorite sports teams and music artists. Now, with AOL 9.0 Optimized, we’re supercharging instant messaging with a special cast of SuperBuddy Icons together with a suite of instant messaging features to make it fun to be online, express yourself and communicate with friends and family.”

Christopher Saunders is Managing Editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com, which is part of the internet.com network.

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