May 23rd, 2012
11:36 AM ET

Digital avatars to guide travelers at New York airports

By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) - First Tupac. Now this.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey announced this week that digital projections of "virtual customer care representatives" will appear this summer in three New York-area airports, guiding flyers to their gates and providing other logistical info.

The 2-D projections can't respond to travelers who ask them questions, said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the authority. But that kind of technology may be added if the 6-month pilot project goes well, he said in a phone interview. "We’ll see if it works, you know," he said. "If people keep walkin' by it, then we wouldn’t renew (the contract for the avatars)."

He added: "Maybe customers will feel more comfortable listening to an avatar than a live person."

The three avatars will materialize at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports in July. Renting the technology for 6 months will cost $180,000, Marsico said. If the airports want to keep the technology permanently, each projection would cost $250,000, he said.

The Port Authority says this is the first experiment with virtual avatars in a North American airport. As Time's Techland blog reports, this kind of thing has been tried before in Europe.

You probably don't need to be reminded, but we seem to be in the midst of a hologram - or digital projection - renaissance. Holography was invented in 1948 by Dennis Gabor, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1971, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But it - and related technologies - have been popping up all over the place lately. Most famously, the company Digital Domain resurrected the dead rapper Tupac Shakur for a performance at the Coachella music festival in April.

Here's a video from that "performance":

The technology behind these holograms varies in complexity. Tupac's image wasn't really a hologram but probably was a 2-D image projected against a plate of glass. Check out this Wall Street Journal diagram of how it might have worked. The paper says an image of the rapper was reflected off the stage and onto a plate of Mylar, aligned perpendicular to the floor.

Here's a CNNMoney story on the company behind the trick.

There are also reports that deceased Queen frontman Freddie Mercury will appear on stage as an optical illusion.

A sales associate at Parabit Systems, the company behind the New York airport projections, declined to comment on how the technology works, saying he was not authorized to do so. A WNYC reporter who saw a recent demo of the technology writes that it appears to be a 2-D projection.

Here's how the reporter, Jim O'Grady, describes it:

The avatar will be seen on a device that is a life-sized flat screen in the shape of a woman. She will dispense flight information and tips about services like shuttle bus and taxi pick-ups. It activates when a customer approaches.

A blog on Yahoo News has more on the how-it-works front:

The hologram technology will work by projecting the image on a pane of glass and may remind some people of the recent surprise hologram rendition of the deceased rap artist Tupac Shakur at this year's Coachella music festival. Though it's unlikely the Port Authority will license Tupac's "Ambitionz Az a Ridah" as part of its marketing campaign.

The Port Authority says the avatars are designed to save money - as the New York Post jokes, they don't need a bathroom break - and because it wants to try something new and innovative.

Do you want an avatar to help you find your gate? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under: Future • Innovation • Tech
soundoff (86 Responses)
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  22. Kynt

    I still prefer talking to real people, even when they're grumpy. We seem to do everything to disconnect ourselves from our fellow men, avoiding face-to-face interaction at all costs, although that is still the most effective form of communication, because our body language combined with words can transport so much more than anything a computer generates. Of course, we have to learn to use that language, and we have to teach our children how to interact with each other instead of how to use Facebook and interact with Siri clones. But I guess it's all part of becoming lazy. :(
    A real person at the airport is customer service not because they relay information to the traveler, but because they can do so much more, like smile genuinely and tell you that you have enough time to catch that train to the other terminal, or when you're looking helpless, and if you need help, or offer to get you help to transport your luggage. A real person can also act instead of just re-act. And no, I don't want to be addressed by a smiling hologram asking if I need help. That's just lifeless in an artificial flowers kind of way.

    June 12, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply
  23. michelle

    we arent going to come out of this recession by replacing human workers with holograms! the more people making money= the more people spending money= more money to spend putting more people to work and round and round the wheel turns. continue replacing human jobs with machines and the recession will keep getting worse and worse and more people will stop spending money and more jobs will be lost and soon the only people with anything will be the 1%

    June 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
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  25. Aerin

    Few people seem to get that this creates high tech, high paying jobs in Tampa Florida. Wake up America!

    May 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  26. RIck Springfield

    They need to get the scantly dressed virtual ladies who deal cards at the large LCD poker and roulette machines. I like playing because I feel more comfortable playing a virtual machine than playing at a real card table. Its a lot of fun and I can spend a lot of $ and time on them.

    May 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  27. WE HAVE AN APP FOR THAT!

    Waste of money investment, all we need is an app navigation for airport at palm of your hand, not one fixed somewhere in the airport, we don't even need more screens on the ceiling, which one of us already carry one on our pocket!

    May 28, 2012 at 5:25 am | Reply
  28. NotAnAvatar

    $250,000 for something that can be done by someone earning minimum wage. Glad to see where the airport tax money is being wasted.

    May 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
    • David B

      We would NOT want someone making minimum wage to do that job. That is the problem with much of customer service today. Hiring unqualified, unmotivated people and paying them peanuts, and then expecting great results. It does not work. And we'll never get out of this recession by paying chump change to workers.

      May 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  29. Thisismeohyea

    We need to replace some of our politicians with an avatar! They dont play golf or swindle money out of taxpayers to take people out to lunch!

    May 27, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
  30. Kelley

    Here's a idea that will definitely save money: Get TV-shaped tvs and broadcast travel information over them! But since they're determined to spend all kinds of money at the airport, I think it won't be too long until the holograms are pushing advertising on us.

    May 27, 2012 at 8:04 am | Reply
  31. 4%

    I have seen these in retail and other public places and I find them not just faddish but also creepy. I just realized it's probably because they're talking at me and they have no captions and they are not signing sign language, so I don't understand them, and they don't respond appropriately to my lack of understanding, but instead, keep on talking at me. I prefer the old fashioned big rectangles on the wall with symbols on them.

    May 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • Jaime

      (NhaNha)Avatar Client for PC (Window OS)In order to play Avatar Online you need to download Java Emulator and etarxct into your PC, and then download client and open Avatar client with KEmulator.exe• Java Emulator.zip (17MB)• Avatar Online Client version 1.00 (497KB)

      July 21, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
  32. Chris

    They need to make the Avatar hotter

    May 26, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • David B

      They were in "Minority Report" too.

      May 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  33. Tatiana Covington

    I saw this in *The Time Machine* (2000).

    May 25, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  34. engineer long time

    So far every automated system I have had to deal with is far less than is needed. It costs jobs and provides poor customer service. Grow up America. There is a time and place for our gadgets and there is a time and place for interacting with a human.

    May 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  35. Alkebu

    So much for human interaction in business these days. First the phones now the airports....

    May 25, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  36. STEVE

    They lay off people because avatars don't have mouths to feed and simultaneously raise fees and add new ones to cover the cost. In the end we will pay more and have less service. BTW, wasn't this in total recall?

    May 25, 2012 at 6:15 am | Reply
  37. Greg

    What a waste of money. People using those airports will most likely pay higher fees due to this ridiculously unnecessary program.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:55 am | Reply
  38. :)

    Cool! Can I have a Big Bird avatar show me to my plane?

    May 25, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
    • bob

      awful joke yikes

      May 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  39. mrslibrarian

    They seriously need to get their priorities straight and spend their money on cleaning instead (especially the bathrooms). The New York area airports are the most disgusting, dirty airports I have ever seen.

    May 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  40. Airus Media

    AVA is produced by Airus Media, Inc. of Tampa Florida. See more of her at http://www.airportONE.com or http://www.airusmedia.com.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • jimdog33

      Please tell us the cost benefits vs. cost expenditure of your AVA.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  41. DivideByZero

    As we get closer and closer to the Star Trek world, I can hardly wait for the holodeck to be invented. I will never leave it.

    May 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  42. john

    People get all huffy and puffy about our jobs going overseas but nothing about all the jobs lost to technology...

    May 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  43. Mike K.

    Having completed the sixth grade and all, I really don't need anyone to help me find my way around an airport. You see, there are these strange placards all over the walls and ceilings with mystical symbols that, when interpreted correctly, can explain exactly where you are and where you need to go.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • DSH-Ohio

      I agree that signs convey the same message, but lots of people today are obsessed with toys. This is just another toy for those. Now, as other posts here state, make it interactive and you've got something that signs cannot provide.

      May 24, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
      • Greg

        Interactivity can be provided with a screen, computer and buttons – and much more cheaply.

        May 25, 2012 at 1:06 am |
      • Mike K.

        It's an airport, not an arcade.

        May 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  44. kaveh1000

    This technique has *nothing* to do with holography. It is another 3D technique. Please do not mislead the public by calling it holography and even mentioning Gabor, the inventor of holography...

    May 24, 2012 at 2:46 am | Reply
  45. Goremote

    What they are describing is not really what we currently refer to as an Avatar.....IMO.

    May 23, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  46. redbeanrepublic

    Audi did exactly the same thing in Australia way back in 2010 and it looked pretty neat. ... http://youtu.be/WvHJjhgXCTA

    May 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  47. Mary

    Wonder how 'she' will deal with men making propositions? haha

    May 23, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  48. earthbond2012sir

    frm jack n tha box to jack o lanterns... minus 1 avatar to go... Siri

    May 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  49. Rick

    Mass Effect already came up with this: the VI's on the Citadel. Woohoo, video games driving innovation!

    May 23, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
    • Abiryasin

      Okay going back to the SG for PC. If SEGA is worried about pcariy why don't they make it where if you want it for PC make a special order online cuz it's less likely a person that does make illegal copies will bother ordering online. Plus they have those FBI anti-piracy things with 4 years in prison or 250,000 dollar fine ( not that much people pay attention cuz people still do it). But still if people are wanting and are offering money (not like they have a choice if they want it) why not for pc

      July 19, 2012 at 6:54 am | Reply
    • Juliana

      Your a DA. ppl still mow their lawns. It's a pain in the butt getting a job conirdeisng it might be taken, one time thing with pay that doesn't make it worth while, too young, and how do you expect going there when you can't drive.and instead of shut up how about back off. Plus don't say just get it for your B-day or X-mas. I don't think they would go for paying that much. I got my dsi for X-mas but that was $30 off.D=<

      July 20, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  50. Jack Krackers

    I think I just found my next wife! Perfect ~

    May 23, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  51. Ben Frankly

    Each Avatar costs $250,000! They could pay someone $10-an-hour for ten years for that kind of money and after ten years the human would not need upgrading.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      $10 per hour, $240 per day, $87,600 per year... and we haven't discussed the additional costs (tax, training, benefits...) yet. If there was no prospect of this being profitable it probably wouldn't be introduced now would it?

      May 24, 2012 at 6:06 am | Reply
      • Jbo

        Um yeah you're assuming that they are working 24 hour days? $10/hr is $20,800 buddy. You think someone making $10/hr is making $87,600 per year? LMFO

        May 24, 2012 at 9:42 am |
      • basketcase

        @Jbo The "avatar" will be there 24/7, so to truly replace it with a human you would need to be paying someone 24/7 to do the job. It doesn't have to be the same person the whole time, but the cost to the employer (in wages) is the same no matter what way you divide the time.

        May 24, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Crazyace

      Ben,

      It seems that you fail at math.

      May 24, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
    • Greg

      – or -

      Just print the information of a screen instead. There is no need to:
      A) Hire a live person to repeat the same info
      B) Use a virtual image of a person
      C) Use synthetic speech technology to give the information via audio (I think there is already too much noise pollution/announcements at many airports)

      May 25, 2012 at 1:01 am | Reply
  52. Ben Frankly

    Each Avatar cost $250,000! They could pay someone $10-an-hour for ten years for that king of money and after ten years the human would not need upgrading.

    May 23, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  53. cybercmdr

    They should create an avatar for SIRI, and project that. Then travelers could get answers to questions right away.

    May 23, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  54. Bob

    People will prefer avatars just as they prefer going through 100 menus when you call customer service, instead of talking to someone live.

    May 23, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  55. Doofus

    OH NOEZ! FIRST Tupac and now this!
    CNN sure is up to date with the new tech, not like this has been around for years and whole concerts were done this way (Gorillaz, Hatsune Miku)

    And whats the point to have a lady projected on a glass screen instead of a normal screen on an airport? Hardly a technological break through.

    May 23, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  56. Adder

    Awesome!
    Needs to have interactive capacity to be of value in the long run.

    May 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  57. cnnlicksit

    If it doesnt give you personalized information, than why not just have a TV? It would be alot cheaper and convey just as much information.

    May 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • aaronluc

      Maybe to push technology forward? It all starts with something simple.

      May 24, 2012 at 7:34 am | Reply
      • Greg

        Thats a poor reason to do anything. If it is not needed, then it can wait until it is needed. And, given the price, this is a retarded waste of money.

        May 25, 2012 at 1:03 am |

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