Virtual staff help Paris, U.K. airports put human face on flight updates

Good customer service requires being really shallow, 2D holograms imply

Orly Airport in Paris is pilot testing* new airport staff who emphatically don't live up to the French reputation for lacking patience with those whose behavior or local knowledge fall below standards expected of locals.

On Monday the airport formally launched a program that puts virtual staff out in passenger areas to make announcements and direct passengers with more of a human touch than recorded announcements over a public address system but less than having an actual French person present.

The virtual staff are holograms of actual staff members politely giving directions and gesturing to indicate gates and other directions, projected onto standalone, custom-cut sheet of plexiglass

The holograms are still limited to three locations within the Orly West terminal, where they were first installed for initial testing in July.

The holograms appear when an airline signals a central controlling system it is ready to begin boarding a flight.

When airline staff change their indicator for a flight to "Boarding," Orly's central coordination system picks up the signal and triggers the projectors behind the plexiglass silhouette, which displays the hologram, which appears to recite the boarding information.

Let's just say it's more interactive and there's more visual contact, compared to a screen. We see a person. That being said, it's still a boarding indicator," European news service NTDTV quoted one passenger as saying.

The holograms aren't meant to replace actual staff, according to Charles Telitsine, director of Orly West. The holograms – taped using two female and one male staff member standing in front of green screens, are intended as a friendlier-seeming alternative to generic flight updates on monitors placed in the same locations.

"She informs our passengers, replacing a plasma screen," he said. "And very clearly it's a 'Wow' effect for our clients; it incites passengers to come have a look."

Similar systems went into operation outside security checkpoints England's Luton and Manchester airports in February to remind passengers to take laptops out of one bag and put bottled liquids in another.

The system at Manchester airport is called EyeSay, a more static offshoot of 3D telepresence systems built by the British computer graphics company Musion, a computer-graphic animation company that created a virtual band it called Gorillaz, which performed "live" at the 2005 MTV Awards and had several hits on the British pop charts.

London's Luton airport got its holos from a British digital-sign company called Tensator. Managers at neither airport knew those at the other were getting virtual staff ready for deployment, though the systems debuted only a week apart.

"It just goes to show the idea is not a marketing gimmick," a Luton spokesman told The Telegraph.

Not a marketing gimmick. Oui.

* Get it?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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