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Arnold Worldwide Creates Virtual Santa in Boston Storefront

Posted December 24, 2016

For this holiday season, Arnold Worldwide created a virtual Santa at a storefront in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall. Passersbys get into spirited SMS conversations with a screen-based Father Christmas, powered by Havas Cognitive partner IBM Watson and our own proprietary AI. Santa then programmatically determines whether visitors are naughty or nice and sends his Arnold Elves to gift them accordingly.

Daniel Liss, Group Creative Director on the project, told DIVERGE more about the concept and delivery of the project. 

Where did the idea come from?

The idea for this piece grew out of a desire to create an experience in which the technology feels somehow human—not just in the sense that it mimics human behavior—but that you feel a kind of playful connection to the codebase. Code that connects. And a virtualized Santa seemed like the right place to start: can this Christmas-y AI determine, once and for all, who’s naughty or nice? And in the end, we break the fourth wall for a handoff between technology and genuine human touch. A move that led—happily—to some surprisingly moving moments.

Who is the team behind it?

This piece is the product of members from just about every department at Arnold—creative, technology, brand experience, production, business affairs—who came together super quickly to create something we were all excited about. And we were joined by a fantastic collection of partners like Studio6, Current Studios, Beyond Our Reality, DGI-Invisuals, the Premier Tourist and Landmark Association, Faneuil Hall in Boston and Lost Planet in New York City.

Why is the collaboration with IBM Watson significant to this project? 

We wanted this to feel really personalized, but not get bogged down in complicated or spooky authorizations by users. Havas Cognitive partner IBM Watson let us quickly parse willing participants’ Twitter streams for content and tone and determine the types of gifts they would receive. Our algorithmic Santa would snap and share a quick selfie in the time it took for Watson to do its magic. And in a moment Santa would reply with some solid insights into who you are, and—excitingly—your gift choice. It all feels lightweight and nimble. And more importantly: conversational.

How long did it take to create?

This was an absolute sprint! A few weeks start to finish.

 You worked really hard with customizing each experience, what was the overall reaction to this project?

You do a project like this, and you’re heads-down creating and coding and you hope that people will react the way you’ve imagined it. And it was such an inspiring win. When we began, the piece was originally imagined as being somewhat snarky, even cantankerous, but people’s reactions were so overwhelmingly positive and open, that the interactions changed it from the inside out. As the activation went on, people’s level of surprise and glee actually transformed the experience. Visitors are texting furiously, shouting to Santa, and even—you see it in the video— hugging this virtual being that we’d given enough life to that he seems to be a real, and very human entity.

What were the gifts handed out for naughty or nice?

Naughty people often got coal. Sometimes we’d take pity and augment coal with something small and still vaguely naughty-ish. If you were nice, gifts could range from a scarf–it was freezing—or hat, to a dinner for two, a night at a comedy club, or some live serenading or music from our volunteer performers.

How long did you do this for?

We had the space for one day of set up, and two long (cold!) days of activation/shooting, mostly outside in Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Favorite memory:

A family—a little girl and her parents—wandered by and ended up doing the whole virtual Santa experience. As a special gift from Santa, we carried out a fully set table, chairs and a silver platter with a gift card to a local restaurant—a “night out on us”— nd surprised the little girl with a large stuffed animal. She chased me around with it for a while, and then sealed the deal with a big hug. While she’s hugging me, her mother tells me that they’re in Boston because the little girl is undergoing surgery at a local hospital tomorrow. She commented how good it was to have something to distract and lift them; we made their day. It was hard not to get a bit choked up, and I had to take a short walk afterward. Sometimes you make things and they have their intended effect…