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Have You Encountered a Virtual Assistant?

Buzz Poole
01/31/2012 - 00:00
Virtual assistant in Paris, via Design Observer

Thanks to John Thackara’s Design Observer item, “Virtual Boring Agent,” I’ve come to learn of “virtual assistants.” The latest development in holographic imaging technology, according to this Terminal U article, “the 2D holographic technology works by projecting a pre-recorded video of a real boarding agent onto a human-shaped piece of plexiglass.”

Thackara has this to say about the virtual assistant he encountered at Orly Airport in Paris: “It’s spooky, clever and very well executed — and most people seem to ignore it after a first casual glance . . . the traveling public appear to be so saturated with input that this mini-marvel barely grabs their attention.”

Judging by the demo video produced by London’s Luton Airport, he’s right about the execution. The hologram does appear lifelike, in a very digital, flickering hallucinatory way. Clearly, no one would ever mistake one of these installations for an actual human being. It’s interesting that Thackara’s observation of blasé reactions are attributed to an environment that is already overrun with digital interfaces and media. He’s probably correct. Or maybe more to the point, no one really pays that much attention to actual airport employees unless they are running late for a flight or are trying to locate lost luggage.

If you are to believe the people speaking on behalf of this technology, these virtual agents are the future of our experiences in airports, from boarding to customs and retail. Of course, the people responsible for rolling out this development spin it as one that will better travelers’ experiences. But while I’m sure the initial outlay for these things is costly, it probably pays for itself in the number of human employees that will eventually be out of work. And then what happens when you actually have a question that only can be answered by someone with an actual brain? Doubtless, virtual assistants are very good at reminding you to remove laptops from bags and other such standard prompts. What happens in bad weather when flights are delayed?

I’m happy to report that I have found no evidence, yet, of virtual pilots, though if you really read about how pilots fly planes these days, computers do handle a great deal of the navigation. Maybe virtual pilots will be a twenty-second century advancement.

Have you encountered one of these virtual assistants in an airport, or anywhere else for that matter? Were they useful, useless or just plain weird?

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