With pandemic-related restrictions in full effect, it’s going to be a tough year for kids hoping for a visit to Santa’s workshop.

Heather Maio-Smith, chief executive of communication software developer StoryFile, said she was shopping at Home Depot when it occurred to her that department store Santas would be missing from malls and shopping centers this year.


“It’s so sad,” she said. “Kids aren’t going to be able to go into malls; they’re not going to be able to sit on Santa’s knee or talk to Santa and have that moment.”


Maio-Smith’s company, which has developed a video-based voice recognition platform, snapped into action.


On Nov. 19 Hollywood-based StoryFile launched Ask Santa, a free interactive web program that allows children and their parents to converse with Saint Nick himself.


The website’s voice recognition software interprets questions from users and delivers a prerecorded response culled from hours of video material.


“Who better to bring Santa to them?” Maio-Smith said. “They can have th
e same conversations they would have had in person and for even longer.”

The program is designed for children between the ages of 3 and 12, though a parent is required to sign up for the service. There’s no time limit for the interactions, and Santa will readily answer a wide range of questions, from “What is your favorite color?” (red) to “How do your reindeer fly?” (Christmas magic).


The program isn’t perfect; Santa’s answers to more complicated or specific questions are unlikely to satisfy curious children.


Maio-Smith said the Ask Santa program came together in just eight weeks, a feat she called a “Christmas miracle.” She said one of the biggest challenges has been adjusting the program to better recognize names, which can throw off the language processing function.


“The whole thing has been a learning experience,” Maio-Smith said. She added that the company has been reviewing anonymous transcripts of user interactions with the program in order to refine its software and release an improved version of the program next year.


Ask Santa will be available for use until New Year’s Eve, at which point Maio-Smith said StoryFile will refocus on its core products.


Maio-Smith said the company plans to release a revamped version of StoryFile’s mobile app in the first half of 2021. This program allows users to record videos that others can then interact with virtually, simulating a real conversation.


StoryFile launched in 2017 and has raised about $5 million, according to PitchBook Data Inc.

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