Airports experiment with the latest virtual technologies to improve customer service

Airports around Europe have recently introduced new virtual technologies such as augmented reality, video-conferencing and holograms, which besides their novelty factor, aim to improve customer service at the airport.

Augmented reality
Copenhagen Airport’s latest version of its ‘CPH iPhone’ application features ‘augmented reality’ technology that can be used as a wayfinder inside the airport terminals. Augmented reality combines a camera, GPS and compass in a smartphone to enable the phone’s camera to recognize an object or place that a user is pointing to. Developed in cooperation with airline technology provicer SITA, Copenhagen Airport’s app lets users ‘scan’ the terminals with their iPhone camera and then shows their distance to shops, restaurants and gates and in which direction they are located.

Because GPS signals cannot penetrate concrete structures, it can’t be used to determine a location inside the terminal buildings, so instead the airport is using its finely meshed Wi-Fi infrastructure to provide positioning accurate down to a few metres.

Copenhagen Airport claims to be the first airport in the world to incorporate augmented reality in its iPhone application, and says it hopes to “make it even easier and more fun for passengers to find their way.” Says the airport’s Head of IT Christian Poulsen, “This is a first version of this new technology and we already have many ideas for further development. However, we are launching it now to get an indication from passengers of whether they agree with us that this could be one of the ways of improving wayfinding at the airport”. The ‘CPH iPhone app’ is available for free from the iTunes app store.

Video conferencing
Also aiming to improve passenger way-finding around the airport are Munich Airport’s new ‘InfoGates’. Passengers can use one of six InfoGates to get connected directly to a ‘real’ information service representative via videoconference for a live conversation on life-sized screens. According to Munich Airport the InfoGates will help passengers get their bearings more quickly and allow them to request individual directions in areas of the airport where there was previously no opportunity for face-to-face contact with airport staff.

In the UK, airports such as London Luton, Manchester and Birmingham have recently introduced holograms of real-life customer service staff to help speed up security queues. The holograms are projected on life-size surfaces, modeled after real airport staff, and explain to departing passengers in the security zone how to prepare their luggage to go through security screenings and the restrictions on carrying liquids. The male and female announcers clearly show passengers how to put bottles in a transparent bag and how to take their laptops out of a bag, in the hope that passengers are more responsive to them than a sign. Although information boards at the airports already set out the security restrictions, passengers still regularly forget to remove liquids from their bags. For an impression of the virtual technology at work, see these videos of Manchester Airport and London Luton Airport. The technology is provided by UK company Tensator.

London Luton said it will measure the amount of time spent by passengers in the area to see how much the holograms are helping. If the technology is successful, the airport may develop holograms in other operational roles, such as guiding passengers and helping in retail areas.

Update 11 August 2011. London Luton says that since the introduction of the ‘virtual assistants’, the number of bags identified as being packed incorrectly has been reduced by 5 percent.

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