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This free iPhone app lets you video chat with a ChatGPT-powered digital avatar

Call Annie's AI avatar

screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

With ChatGPT and other AI chat services, you typically type a question or request and then read the results on the screen. But what if you could talk with a virtual AI avatar that doesn’t just answer questions but attempts to strike up a visual conversation with you? That’s exactly the ambition behind a new app known as Call Annie.

Designed for iOS and for the web, Call Annie displays a virtual female avatar that tries to look, sound, and act like a real person. Using Apple’s Neural Engine for the deep learning aspect of AI, Call Annie offers the video chat mode only on the iPhone 12 and later. Users of older iPhones can chat with Annie only through audio.

Also: Is this the snarkiest AI chatbot so far? I tried HuggingChat and it was weird

After you turn the feature on, Annie kicks off the initial conversation by asking how you are or how your day is going. You can either respond accordingly and see where the chat goes, or you can ask a specific question or request.

Since Call Annie is powered by OpenAI’s ChatGPT model, she’s capable of responding to just about any request you’d normally throw at the service. You can ask Annie to explain a complex topic, solve a math problem, compose a poem, tell a joke, translate a phrase, and much more. And if she doesn’t know the answer right away, she’ll search the web for you. But Annie goes beyond the usual ChatGPT messaging by offering a more conversational approach.

Also: How to use ChatGPT: Everything you need to know

For instance, I asked Annie to tell me how long it takes to drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. She gave me the answer but then asked if I’d ever taken the drive myself. After discussing the drive, we talked about why I went to D.C., my favorite museums, and how I liked the trip.

You can sit back and let Annie direct the conversation based on her questions and your responses, direct it yourself, or end the chat anytime you want. But because Annie seemed “real,” I admit I felt a bit guilty stopping the conversation midstream, almost as if I just left her in a virtual space waiting for me to come back.

Annie is also designed to provide emotional support, at least in a decidedly unofficial way. Describing herself as an AI friend that you can talk to about anything that’s on your mind, Annie aims to help you work you way through a problem.

Also: How to use ChatGPT as a Siri shortcut on your iPhone or iPad

In one chat, I told her I was feeling anxious because of an upcoming job interview. After asking me a couple of questions to gain more detail, she offered some practical tips I could use. In another chat, I told her I was depressed because I wasn’t sleeping. After providing several useful suggestions, she advised me to check with a doctor or therapist if the problem persisted.

Of course, an AI chatbot can and should never take the place of a qualified professional, especially for people experiencing more severe emotional issues. But in lieu of a real person, this type of app can sometimes at least steer you in a useful direction.

The iPhone app is easy to use. Just tap the Call Annie button and then start the conversation. If you don’t chime in first, Annie will try to engage you by asking a question. You can also tap a Conversation Ideas button at the top to view different topics under categories such as lifestyle, fun, education, travel, and career.

Also: Want a compassionate response from a doctor? Ask ChatGPT instead

As an avatar, Annie uses facial expressions, eye movements, mouth movements, and more to make it appear like she’s listening to you and thinking about your questions. Created by text-to-image tool Midjourney, Annie’s face itself looks quite realistic. Her voice sounds robotic, but not so that it ruins the overall experience.

In a recent Reddit chat, the developers of Annie revealed a few details about their AI chatbot, explaining that the expressions and lip movements are animated on the device to match the actual speech. From a privacy perspective, no voice is saved, though a transcription is forwarded to ChatGPT to get all the dialogue. You can also delete any conversation from your Chat history. Next in store for Annie is support for ChatGPT-4 smarts as well as a character and backstory and even a memory so she can keep track of who you are.

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