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.