Trade show exhibitors often go over the top to get attention: adding a second story to a booth, dunking laptops in fish tanks or even using motorized dinosaurs to stalk guests.

3M Co. recently launched a new “gotcha” to the trade show mix: a salesperson who is not a person.

The company’s “Virtual Presenter” uses black film, light absorption beads and rear projectors to create an eerily lifelike image of a person who talks, moves and maintains eye contact.

At trade shows since its March launch and in a handful of businesses testing it out, the human apparition attracted many gawkers seeking to figure out its trick.

The eye contact thing “is freaky. It really gives the appearance that it’s just a one-on-one communication,” said Bill Hibbard, 3M business development manager for dynamic merchandising, during a demonstration at the 3M Innovation Center in Maplewood.

The person’s image is projected onto a human-shaped acrylic cutout coated with a dark but translucent optical film that reflects light. It “comes alive” when an unobtrusive projector kicks into gear several feet away, activated by either a motion detector or the press of a button.

3M developed the virtual presenter by repurposing microscopic and reflective glass-bead technology that was originally used to make dental implants. Engineers combined that with the company’s optical film and rear-projection technology, said Del Kauss, who heads communications for 3M’s Innovation Center.

Company officials declined to say how much it cost to develop, though they said it took more than nine months.

A presenter can be created using any actor, employee or celebrity and it can be made to speak in any language.

Since launching the technology at the South By Southwest music trade show in Austin, Texas, in March, 3M has used NASCAR driver Greg Biffle as its virtual presenter at a recent NASCAR Auto Show. And it is currently testing prototypes at a Mercedes-Benz car dealership in Tampa, Fla., and a Honda dealership in New York City.

In the future, such virtual presenters could be used to direct airport passengers, recruit military personnel, or address crowds in stores or at other events, Hibbard said.

At the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston in May, several attendees stopped, backed up, took photos and peeked behind Meisha Johnson, only to learn that the seemingly three-dimensional woman was mostly air. The gimmick not only drew people to 3M’s exhibit, it won 3M new business because other exhibitors wanted their own version of Meisha.

To buy a virtual presenter platform — with the projector, computer, software, customized acrylic cutout and scripts — costs $15,000 to $22,000. The price is higher when it includes a virtual display screen that allows customers to interact with the device. Companies may also rent the system for $1,500 to $2,000 a month.

3M launched a website and phone number for prospective buyers. The question is: Will it sell?

The next big thing?

“It could be very big,” said John Pavek, chief marketing officer for Exhibitor and Corporate Events magazines.“There is always someone trying to apply new technology to grab attention on a trade show floor. This is another way to do that. The exhibitor has about three seconds to capture someone’s attention and get them into the booth. This could do that.”

But to really grab attention, 3M is moving forward on making the virtual presenters interactive. At the car dealerships in New York and Florida, 3M paired its virtual presenter with a touch display screen, allowing service customers inside car dealerships to explore options for trading in their car for a newer model.

A customer in the lobby of the dealership’s service department can activate the virtual presenter by pressing a start button. The virtual presenter responds specifically depending on what options the customer selects using the touch screen. The system has been instrumental in helping at least six customers decide to buy or lease a newer car, 3M said.

Grabbing some attention

“At the root level it is novel and a different way to convey digital information,” said Carter Jensen, experiential technical specialist with Minneapolis ad agency Periscope, who saw prototypes at 3M before the virtual presenter launched and later saw it in action at drugstores in New York and elsewhere.

“It’s going to grab some attention right off the bat. People walk by and see it. It looks like an actual, real person and you kind of do a double take. You are not sure what it actually is.”

From a technology standpoint, 3M isn’t breaking new ground. But it has hit upon a unique combination of rear-projection and digital display technology and “capitalized on an interesting application,” Jensen said.

It is unclear just how well the product will sell, he said. Right now, 3M has “novelty going for it” and the ability to convey customized messages in an interesting way.

Old tool, new twist

Whichever way the technology evolves, 3M’s effort is a new twist on an old tool.

In the past, marketers at trade shows and elsewhere tried to get attention with holograms — three-dimensional images that are created from a photographic plate and laser. Holograms became novelties back in the 1980s, when marketers first used them at trade shows to “virtually” spin around a product or show off its dimensions.

“But it was always on a pretty small scale,” Pavek said.

3M’s new product is not a hologram, but gives that illusion and in a life-size format that “is not a technology that is commonly deployed. You are more likely to see a 3-D image in a theater than you would a hologram or virtual presenter” at a trade show.