Small firm has big plan for little widgets

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The growing number of widgets populating the Web are ready to go Hollywood.

Although the little moving gadgets have existed since the beginning of the Internet, these miniaturized software applications increasingly are being used by bloggers and crafty kids on social network sites.

Now, a unique strain of widgets has become more virtual and lifelike, which could catch on big with celebrities and artists who want to reach and engage their fans in a new way. And Gizmoz, a new social expression and user-generated media service based out of Herzliya, Israel, is leading the charge.

Gizmoz transforms a single uploaded photo into an animated character photo-realistic enough to display lifelike movements including eye blinks, breathing and a range of facial expressions. The technology platform combines behavioral animation, digital puppetry and 3-D rendering.

Whether a "gizmo" is based on the creator's own likeness or a digital character from the Gizmoz library -- which includes the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Borat -- creators can further enhance and personalize their 3-D moving head by selecting hair, clothing, body art and other accessories from the GizmozMaker catalog.

Gizmoz founder and CEO Eyal Gever says that such musical artists as 50 Cent, Kelly Clarkson and Kelly Rowland have used the service to feature themselves in the avatar-like form. Gever expects more than 30 new artists to start using the service in the next two weeks, and the company plans to collaborate with the labels on music licenses.

"We refer to it as 'Pixar to the People,' " Gever says. "But celebrities are using the service to connect to their fans, too. I think we're bringing something radically new to the world of self-expression."

Gizmoz caricatures speak, too, through Gizmoz's voice-driven animation feature. A live lip-synching capability, along with a text-to-speech and phoneme recognition feature, is behind the distinguishable voice tones and dialects that can be created for users recording personalized messages.

The service also includes the Gizmoz Answering Machine, a message-center tool that allows users to leave personalized Gizmoz message on their site, and Gizmoz Stickers, which lets users post their creations on blogs and profile pages with a link that connects back to the Gizmoz site.

Gizmoz Answering Machine users include 50 Cent and Clarkson, both of whom have left recorded messages on their social networking sites for fans who use the feature. Fans can respond with their own Gizmoz-recorded messages.

In the future, the company plans to introduce widgets that let consumers interact directly with their favorite artists by performing their favorite song, scene or comedy skit from that artist and submitting it for their feedback. Additionally, the company is planning a tool that will allow users to take part in television and movie scenes.

Gizmoz has partnerships with widget provider RockYou and Web hosting site Freewebs. Because the service uses Flash technology, it is suitable for any Web browser; the application also is compatible with mobile devices that support MMS (Multimedia Messaging Services) or WAP (Wireless Application Protocol).

With funding from Columbia Capital and Menlo Park, Calif.-based Benchmark Capital behind the privately held company, Silicon Valley also sees the promise of investing in the Gizmoz brand of mini mobile applications.

Online measurement company comScore last week further legitimized the existence of widgets by introducing the Widget Metrix, an online analysis tracking photos, video clips and other content embedded into personal pages and such sites as Facebook and MySpace.
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