“This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope *static*.”
— Leia Organa’s message to the Jedi Master
Holograms are a technology that Luke Skywalker introduced us to in “Star Wars,” wherein Princess Leia appears in a projection from droid R2D2. Cable new viewers were introduced to a life-size hologram of a reporter having a conversation with Wolf Blitzer in CNN’s studio in 2008. It brought a whole new meaning to the concept of virtual news.
Business travelers are now seeing this futuristic wonder come alive in airports. At the UK’s Manchester Airport, for example, holograms are used for what I guess will have to pass as somebody’s best practice — i.e., to cut down on the bottled water and makeup tossed in airport trash bins. Oh, and to make the security lines move faster … although one can easily visualize travelers pausing in line to check out the life-size, 3D images of customer service employees babbling on about the restrictions on liquids on planes. (Evidently, signs and recordings are inadequate.) One is curious, though, what with cutbacks in budgets, where Manchester came up with the scratch to install these space age mannequins. But I have to hand it to them. Such an imaginative use of cutting edge technology. Makes me pine for Carrie Fisher.
The latest in virtual reality technology are the videoconferencing screens on display at Munich Airport, where glossy kiosks portraying life-size images of information service representatives pop up at the push of a button. Called InfoGates, these videoconferencing devices deliver real-time access to a real person, that is, a real virtual person.
So, the information people at the airport who used to answer your questions and direct you to where you wanted to go are still there; it’s just that they’re just stuck working inside those shiny glass boxes. Just remember that all of this virtual technology is being rolled out at the feet of passengers in an effort to improve customer service. This is because real people obviously are too expensive. Or too rare.
Meantime, ANA became the first airline to introduce a free app — called, aptly, Virtual Airport — that enables Apple iPad users — and there are a lot of us! — to connect to airline and airport content while at the airport. Similarly, airport and travel apps continue to proliferate for iPhones and other smartphones. For example, the CPH iPhone app offers Copenhagen Airport flight times with “push” update notifications, a shopping and restaurant guide, maps, and even updates on security line wait times in. No wonder it’s the airport’s official iPhone app.
Actually, the CPH Airport app also incorporates what it known as “augmented reality” (AR). While virtual reality replaces the real world (or what passes for it these days) with a simulated world, AR adds things like computer-generated sounds or graphics that seem like they’re right there in the real world. In the case of the CPH app, it becomes a tool for travelers seeking out gates, shops, restaurants, stores, or other locations inside otherwise confusing airport terminals
As Wall Street Journal reporter Katie Boehret reported recently, “basic forms of AR are at work in our everyday lives.” In fact, our smartphones already feature AR components, which include a compass, GPS, camera, and accelerometer. I think many of us first bumped into AR when we watched a televised NFL game and saw that bright yellow first down line. It seemed like it really must be on the field, since it flowed around the players and they stepped through it. Of course, it is not real. Soon we may all find ourselves questioning what is real and what is not; what is virtual and what is augmented reality.
Actually, I already am. Road warriors are a little like Princess Leia: we’re stuck in an alternate reality — the airport — when all we want is real reality. For all the help that they are, all we really want is to stop tapping those smartphones, listening to those smart mannequins, and conversing with those smart boxes. Our Obi-Wan Kenobi is as simple as the opening of a door at a gate leading to an on-time departure.
Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • www.amadeus.com • Twitter: @tentofortysix