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Google’s internet-enabled eyewear, Glass, is undoubtedly the star of a nascent market in wearable computers. But while BBC News has reported that the tech giant won’t sell Glass until late 2014 at the earliest, airlines are already anticipating how it – and computerised spectacles like it – might someday improve security and other vital airport operations.

Nerdy or not, here it comes
In a demonstration at London’s Heathrow Airport, Kevin O’Sullivan, the lead engineer at SITA, a Geneva-headquartered technology consortium owned by the airline industry, donned his Google Glass headset and held up a passenger’s barcoded luggage tag. The device’s camera scanned the barcode, successfully crosschecking it against airport and airline databases, giving agents a real life solution to quickly locate the whereabouts of a missing bag.

That solution contrasts with today’s situation, where travellers needing help must hunt down the lost-luggage desk that’s staffed by the employees of a specific airline. Wearable technology would give any official roaming an airport the ability to fetch details about a lost bag and travellers could save time by approaching the first representative they saw, regardless of airline affiliation.

 If there were a language barrier that made communication with a traveller more difficult, the agent could also request a translation by saying, "OK, Glass: how do you say, ‘Please give me your baggage tag’ in Japanese?"

Even at the airline gate, smart glasses could improve the customer experience. “Instead of an agent spending the entire time looking down at documents or their computers, he or she can look directly at passengers, while occasionally glancing at the heads-up display," O’Sullivan said. 

Besides Google, other manufacturers such as Vuzix, Recon Instruments, NTT Docomo are also working to develop smart glass products.

A fresh look at boarding
Time is money for airlines, which get charged for the time they spend at the gate, and smart glasses could theoretically be used to help agents check passenger identification more quickly, therefore saving carriers time and gate fees. When a passenger steps forward to get on a flight, an agent could hold up the boarding pass and passport in front of their smart glasses, scanning barcodes on the two documents simultaneously.

If the passenger’s name on the documents matched each other and also matched the airline’s flight records, the agent would see a green light on his or her heads-up display telling them to let the passenger board. If the records didn’t match, agents would review the passenger’s documents according to old-fashioned procedure, said O’Sullivan, whose team has been testing the concept.

Of course, security checkpoint agents, such as the Transportation Security Administration in the US, could also adopt smart glasses to help speed up identification.

Unfortunately, during six months of testing, SITA has found that Glass isn’t yet fast enough to work accurately in a real setting for boarding pass identification. One glitch: the first generation smart glasses have fixed focus, low resolution cameras, which require agents to hold up papers at a very specific distance to be correctly scanned.

O’Sullivan is trying to see if tweaks could make the process work and is hopeful that smart glasses may improve with time. SITA plans to run limited trials with real passengers in mid-2014.

Vision of the future
Even if smart glasses improve, no technology is perfect. Passengers may still face hassles and unpleasant surprises. A crinkled boarding pass or smudged mobile device screen -- or even a person holding a document at the wrong angle relative to the lens – could prevent a camera from functioning well.

There could also be snafus in cases where agents may be making a visual confirmation that the person in the passport photo, or other government-issued ID, matches the face of the passenger. If the passenger looks different than their photo, agents may to pull him or her over for additional questioning.

Privacy concerns are another potential drawback. Procedures will have to be put in to place to make sure any information collected isn’t shared in an inappropriate way.

It may be a few years off, but the future face of air travel may very well be wearing a pair of smart glasses.

Sean O’Neill is the future of travel columnist for BBC Travel

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