Need help with a gift? Maybe Ellie the Elf can help. She's not a real elf, even though her blinking blue eyes and clapping hands at your every question make you feel as if you have inhabited her cartoonish world of snowy trees and giant gift boxes.
The Mall of America in Bloomington has teamed with Ellie's creator, Los Angeles-based Vntana, to create a "mixed reality" interactive experience for shoppers that is being used in a retail space for the first time.
Launched on Black Friday, more than 1,000 shoppers have visited the 3-D elf at the "Holiday Cottage," located on the third floor on the mall's north side.
At a time when more people are doing their shopping online, creating experiences like Ellie the Elf is one way to keep customers coming to physical stores and to make creative use of technology, mall officials said.
"Innovation is always on the forefront of what we do," said Jill Renslow, the Mall of America's senior vice president of business development. "Change keeps the experience fresh."
The Mall of America already uses chatbots on its website and a mobile app to answer customers' questions. And it was one of the first shopping malls in the U.S. to try out a robot named Pepper as part of Super Bowl festivities in February.
Ellie is a holographic projection, or hologram, that uses artificial-intelligence software patented by Vntana that connects to the mall's existing chatbots. Powered by a 3-D gaming engine, it gives people the sense that they are talking to the character in real time.
With dark brown hair, striped stockings and pointed green elfin slippers, Ellie offers shoppers a choice of gifts for men, women, teens, kids and babies. Shoppers talk to the character through a microphone.
For someone looking to give a tech gift for a teenager, Ellie might suggest Bose headphones, Bose home speakers, a Microsoft Surface Pro laptop or a Microsoft Xbox One home video game console. She will even give directions to the stores that carry the merchandise if you ask.
And, of course, she will pose all day or night for selfies.
The gift selections are pulled from the mall's holiday shopping guide, which is a curated collection of retailers' most popular gifts and other items, and not advertising content, Mall of America spokeswoman Sarah Grap said.
While Ellie is the first of Vntana's avatars to be used in a retail setting, the company aims to roll the concept out to more malls in the coming year, said co-founder and Chief Executive Ashley Crowder Monday.
Vntana has used similar holograms with brands such as Lexus, Nike, Pepsi and Intel. It has a permanent installation at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where visitors can get "pep talks" from holographic images of such NFL legends as retired New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath or the late Chicago Bears coach George Halas.
But Vntana's Crowder, who was visiting the mall on Monday, said it was satisfying to see people of all ages interact with Ellie within her cozy fireplace installation.
"At Christmas, everyone believes in the magic," she said.