These digital helpers are now starting to be found on websites for governments, hospitals and companies, and as hologram-like avatars at some major airports.
Patrick Bienvenu, whose Florida company recently created avatars for John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in New York and New Jersey's Newark Liberty International, said they can tell travellers what terminal they're in or where to find a rental car.
"That's allowing people to do what they do best and that's the interactive and having the human touch," said Bienvenu, chief operations officer of Airus Media Inc. in Tampa.
The idea isn't to replace or take away jobs, he said.
"Let the avatar give out the basic, routine information."
Sometimes human employees can have an off-day or deviate from the information they've been given and Bienvenu said virtual assistants avoid that.
"In some situations, it's important that you make sure that a message is delivered consistently and in a certain way over and over again, and sometimes if you assign a human to do that they're not going to always be consistent in the message that you need."
Airus Media has created airport virtual assistants that are called "Ava" and when travellers approach, the avatar starts providing information. The next steps would be to have them respond to questions, support different languages, and ultimately provide information such as departure gates and flight times, he said.
Bienvenu also sees potential for them to be in malls and retail stores and added he received a call from a Calgary builder who wants to put avatars in model homes.
Tensator, a United Kingdom company, has created virtual assistants for Boston's Logan Airport and Washington's Dulles International Airport as well as several airports in Europe. The company has also created one for a Duane Reade drug store in New York.
Tech analyst Mark Tauschek said virtual assistants are going to be big.
"This is really one of these disruptive technologies that we think is going to change the game in the coming years, the decade," he said.
Virtual assistants should provide consistency for customers, said Tauschek, a lead research analyst at the Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
"You won't have to deal with temperament."
Coginov is a Montreal company that creates virtual assistants for websites run by cities, governments, hospitals, insurance companies and company call centres, among others.
The virtual assistants can answer questions such as "When is garbage day?" or "Where can I walk my dog?" for a city or municipality, said Emmanuel Perdikis, senior director of business development at Coginov.
"What you will find is an avatar can be anything from a human to a caricature or cartoon caricature that matches the image of a construction worker or a police officer or nurse, whatever," he said.
The company's virtual assistants can do voice-activated or text and chat answers, Perdikis said, but text answers are more popular so far because they avoid potential problems with the accents of those asking questions.
Coginov has natural language technology that looks at questions, answers, Internet language, slang and tailors a virtual assistant to a company's or organization's needs.
Tauschek also said virtual assistants will free up employees to do more interesting and productive work.
"The challenge, though, with it is that it will probably put some people out of work," he said.
The other challenge is to get it right when putting a virtual assistant to work — or social media sites will take note, he said.
"You will have all kinds of 'Fail' hashtags on Twitter."Suggest a correction