Virgin Atlantic Testing Google Glass to Aid Airline Passengers

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2014-02-11

Virgin Atlantic Testing Google Glass to Aid Airline Passengers

Virgin Atlantic will use Google Glass to test how it and similar wearable computing innovations could help the airline assist passengers from their arrival at an airport through boarding and departure, and even with their in-flight experiences.

The Glass experiments at Virgin Atlantic, which begin on Feb. 11, were unveiled by the airline in connection with a recent study that gathered data from some 10,000 airline passengers about the state and future of airline travel. One of the key results of the study, according to the airline, is that many of the surveyed passengers often decried how the experience of flying has lessened over the last several decades and is no longer the exciting, wondrous and luxurious means of travel that it often was in the past.  

That's where the idea to test Google Glass and similar devices came into play.

"While it's fantastic that more people can now fly than ever before, the fact that air travel has become so accessible has led to some of the sheen being lost for many passengers," Dave Bulman, the director of IT for Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement. "By being the first in the industry to test how Google Glass and other wearable technology can improve customer experience, we are upholding Virgin Atlantic's long tradition of shaking things up and putting innovation at the heart of the flying experience."

The airline's six-week-long Google Glass pilot project will be visible to passengers as they arrive at London Heathrow airport starting Feb. 11, according to the airline. "Concierge staff in the airline's Upper Class Wing will be using Google Glass and other wearable technology to deliver the industry's most high tech and personalized customer service yet."

Virgin's Glass initiative is being conducted in partnership with SITA, an airline industry vendor that provides IT and communications services to airlines around the world.

Together, Virgin Atlantic and SITA will test how devices such as Google Glass can be integrated to enhance customers' travel experiences and improve efficiency for air carriers, according to the companies.

Using Glass, Upper Class passengers will be able to be greeted by name at the airport by Virgin personnel who will be wearing Glass devices that they can use to check their passengers in for their flights, according to Virgin. Airline personnel will also be able to update the incoming passengers about their latest flight information and weather details, as well as about local events at their destinations. In addition, Virgin personnel will be able to translate any foreign language information needed by their passengers using Glass.

As such technologies continue to be refined in the future, airline personnel could eventually even gain the ability to determine their passengers' dietary and refreshment preferences by using Google Glass or other devices to access their records.

After the pilot testing is completed, the airline will review the experiment to see if it is something it would like to expand in the future, the airline stated.

"We continue to look ahead and research innovations that customers might only dream of today," said Bulman. "The whole industry needs to listen to what these passengers are calling for, and keep innovating to bring a return to the golden age of air travel. Flying should be a pleasure not a chore."

The Virgin Atlantic study found that 42 percent of travelers worldwide reported that flying is less glamorous than it used to be, according to the airline. "When asked what would improve their experience of flying in the future, 55 percent said that Wi-Fi on board would be the most appealing aspect, second only to bigger windows and more space on board (60 percent)."

Virgin Atlantic Testing Google Glass to Aid Airline Passengers

Virgin's testing with Glass comes on the heels of a related experiment with Glass by the New York Police Department, which began trials in December to see how the devices could be used in police work. The devices have not yet been deployed in any actual field or patrol operations, but reviews are being done to see how they may be used in the future, according to the department.

The news that the NYPD is investigating possible uses for Google Glass is intriguing on its face, particularly because of several high-profile incidents involving the digital eyewear in the last six months.

In January 2014, a network administrator from Columbus, Ohio, was removed from a movie theater and questioned by federal authorities over concerns that he was using the Google Glass on his head to film a bootleg copy of the movie being shown in the theater. 

That followed the case of a California driver who was stopped for speeding in October 2013 and cited for speeding and for driving while wearing Google Glass.

In the movie theater case, an agent from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations unit went to the man's seat in the darkened theater and asked him to come along for questioning.  Eventually, the man was freed when he was able to prove that he had not used Glass to capture the film illegally. While he was detained, he was subjected to detailed questioning about his activities in the theater and about his use of Google Glass.

In the case of the California driver, Cecelia Abadie, 44, of Temecula, Calif., was cited in October 2013 as she drove home from San Diego, but her case was dismissed in January when during her trial a judge ruled that the arresting officer had not observed her actually using the head-mounted computer.

Concerns about Google Glass and the law had surfaced even before both of these cases. Reports from around the nation have occasionally made headlines when bars, restaurants and other public facilities have posted signs inside their establishments banning the use of Google Glass inside due to privacy and other issues.

The topic of Google Glass potentially being worn by drivers was even raised in March 2013 in West Virginia, where a state legislator introduced a bill that would have banned driving by persons wearing head-mounted displays, including Google Glass. But the bill stalled and never came up for a vote in 2013.

Google Glass has been a topic of conversation among techies since news of it first arrived in 2012. The first Google Glass units began shipping in April 2013 to developers who signed up at the June 2012 Google I/O conference to buy an early set for $1,500 for testing and development; it was the hit of the conference. Google also then began shipping Glass units to lucky users who were selected in the #ifihadglass contest for the opportunity to buy their own early versions of Glass.

Each Google Glass device includes adjustable nose pads and a high-resolution display that Google said is the equivalent of a 25-inch high-definition screen from 8 feet away. The glasses also feature a built-in camera that takes 5-megapixel photos and video at 720p. Audio is delivered to wearers through their bones, using bone-conduction transducers.

At the same time, Google Glass is gaining acceptance in the marketplace, even before its official launch to consumers, which is expected sometime this year. In January 2014, Google announced a deal with eyewear and vision insurer VSP Global that will cover a portion of Google Glass frames and prescription lenses for its insurance customers.

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