You may meet airport assistants Heather,
Emily and Carla, or any number of their co-workers, in terminals across the
These charming ladies are on hand to help you with your travel needs, anything
from directions and security regulations to liquid restrictions and boarding
card details -- the kind of things that can often baffle infrequent fliers.
But there is one difference to these
helpers – they are virtual assistants, life-sized projections that are being
rolled out at airports from Azerbaijan to the US in a bid to help travellers make
their journeys more efficient.
By using the latest in rear-projection
technology, a high resolution, colour 3D-like holographic image is projected onto
a flat two-dimensional sheet of acrylic in the shape of a woman. The life-like digital
avatar is placed in key points around the airport, such as just before
security, and reads out pre-recorded messages covering a variety of common
“The uniqueness of the hologram has really
caught the attention of many of our new passengers, especially families,” said Nicola
McCabe, head of customer service at East Midlands Airport in the UK.
Some of the avatars have a sensor that
activates the messages when someone is close by, others repeat their pre-programmed
speeches on a loop. They’re designed to calm travellers’ nerves with a comforting
yet informative voice, can speak multiple languages if necessary (some US
airports program theirs in both Spanish and English, for example) and don’t
need time off to go to the bathroom.
New York’s Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports have
rolled them out, as has Boston’s Logan,
Washington, DC’s Dulles
and Azerbaijan’s Baku airport. A number of
European airports have trialled the avatars too, including Paris’ Orly and the UK’s East Midlands, Edinburgh and London City.
“We have had great feedback from our
passengers,” said McCabe, “Ensuring that they were positioned in the right
location to benefit passengers was something that had to be tried and tested. We
now believe that they are in the correct place to engage with passengers before
they proceed through security.”
Virtual border guards are also being
tested, with the US Customs and Border Protection
trialling a kiosk at Dennis DeConcini Port in Nogales, Arizona, a border
crossing between the US and Mexico. Called AVATAR
(Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time) and developed by
the US government and the University
of Arizona, an official figure (a man nicknamed Elvis) projected onto a
screen conducts the interviews and can detect small changes in movement and behaviour
to see if a traveller is telling the truth.
The system uses three sensors to assess responses:
an infrared camera that can detect pupil dilation and where the eyes are
focusing; a high-definition camera to pick up changes in facial expression; and
a microphone that analyses the pitch and frequency of the voice. Travellers
stand in front of the kiosk to answer the yes or no questions, and if any unexpected
physiological responses are picked up by the detectors then the person is
passed on to a real border guard who conducts a more intensive interview.
Airport a virtual assistant of a different kind is being introduced. Called
passengers use an interactive screen to talk to a member of the airport
information team via a live videoconference. The centrally-located team can
link into any of the six booths located around the airport and answer questions
immediately on all aspects of travel. During the conversation, both passenger
and staff see each other as life-sized screen images in real time.