When Professor John Henry Pepper, of the Polytechnic Institute in London demonstrated the Pepper's Ghost "hologram" demonstration back in 1862, he probably never imagined that someday his illusionist experimentation would propel customer service into the future 150 years later.
That's exactly what happened last week when the The Port Authority of New York City announced the deployment of three lifelike virtual assistant avatars in its Newark, JF Kennedy, and La Guardia airports. The Port Authority is spending $180,000 to rent Libby, Marie, and Sarah for six months to help assist passengers by dispensing information about ground transportation and other concerns by reciting from a script as soon as passengers walk within 30 feet of them.
Designed by Airportone.com, a division of Airus Media, the Airport Virtual Assistant (AVA) is an image of a talking person being displayed on a human-shaped section of clear plexiglass, much like the Pepper's Ghost hologram. AIrportone.com records a collection of video clips including directions to nearby gates, alerts about an upcoming security checkpoint or advertisements about nearby stores for shopping.
According to Patrick Bienvenu, chief operations officer at AirportOne.com, technology exists for fully interactive versions of the avatar that can respond to passenger questions as complex as location of departure gates and departure times, when specifically queried by a passenger. Bienvenu also stated in a press release that the virtual assistant could eventually be a suitable tool for use in security screening and security line control because they could speed the security screening process.
Virtual assistants have emerged over the past several years as a viable, economic, and efficient source to help customers self serve themselves via company websites. With the help of advanced speech recognition technology and 3-dimensional telepresence, virtual agents are making the leap from the company website to the physical space. Soon we may be greeted by these hologram-like service reps at stadiums, retail stores, and in hospitals. But much like ATMs at their infancy, IVRs in the contact center, or even the self-service kiosks in airports, companies must have an escalation strategy in place when leery customers demand a real person to speak to or if pasengers become frustrated when the Sarah, Libby, or Marie can't provide their desired answers.
Then they'll be seen for their true colors: overpaid, creepy/cool reflections of light on an angled plated glass.