Netflix Employs Talking Robot to Suggest Movies and TV Shows

Streaming service debuts Max animated recommendation feature on Sony PlayStation 3 consoles

Computer-generated humanoid agents have a checkered past, but Netflix is betting that a whimsical digital avatar named Max will spur users to watch more TV shows and pics.

The Internet streaming service on Friday began rolling out Max on Sony’s PlayStation 3. Max, which incorporates elements of gameplay, asks a few questions about a user’s mood or movie and TV show tastes to come up with suggested titles. Those are based on Netflix’s predictive content-recommendation algorithms.

“If Max performs at the level he promises, we’ll expand his repertoire and make him available on other devices in the future, likely the iPad next,” Todd Yellin, VP of product innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post announcing the feature. Currently Max is available only to U.S. customers.

Many past attempts to create a human-like interfaces to information services have misfired, including Microsoft Office’s famously annoying paperclip helper. From the world of sci-fi, artificial-intelligence creations have run the gamut from the menacing HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the servile C-3PO in “Star Wars.”

But Netflix says Max — whose name evokes the animated Max Headroom character from the 1980s — tested well with users. A company rep declined to disclose stats but said with every new feature, Netflix aims to improve engagement (time spent with the service) and retention (rate at which customers cancel).

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Max uses Netflix’s internally developed recommendation technology, and the company contracted with Chicago-based developer Jellyvision Lab for the animation. The feature has been in development for about a year and a half.

The feature includes a ratings game lets users pick a genre and then rate a few titles on Netflix’s five-star scale. Randomly, Max sometimes will offer a suggestion after asking only one question, or “when intoxicated by past success, Max will get a little cocky and offer a suggestion right away, no questions required,” according to Yellin.

Another game prompts users to pick between two specific genres, like “monkeys or UFOs.” The “Celebrity Mood Ring” game provides choice between two actors — say, Bruce Willis vs. Michelle Williams (or neither).

Watch a demo of Netflix’s Max on PS3:

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