Right, let me get this straight. The uncomfortable process of air travel, bad enough with its crowding, overpriced food, and seating melees, will soon be intensified by a new airport humiliation: asking a hologram for help. And we think old ladies are odd talking to their cats.
Beginning next month, the New York region’s top three airports—Newark Liberty, JFK, and LaGuardia—will deploy “Ava,” a 2-D interactive image projected on a pane of glass, to assist travelers in what marketing brains are calling “way finding” and “virtual public guidance.” Oh yeah—and virtual advertising.
Ava’s entrée into our lives is being promoted as pretty much the neatest thing since sliced bread (we ran a somewhat breathless feature about it recently), and I admit her ability to speak multiple languages at the drop of a hat is a one-up on most human customer-service reps. But otherwise the concept raises more questions than confidence for me.
Let’s start with the virtual public guidance. Now I’m a verbal type, and although that’s a handy characteristic for many situations, it doesn’t help with way finding. I seem to have been born without an onboard GPS, and I’ve learned that words can actually hinder, rather than help, this shortcoming. I once got lost at Heathrow airport attempting to follow directions to the place they herd overnighters for security. Try as I might, I kept looping back to the off-limits area. In the end I had to be escorted by a huffy Brit and put into the care of a sort of night matron. I really didn’t mean to behave like a potential terrorist.
So how is a hologram going to steer me to the ladies room, assuming I find myself at LaGuardia with that particular mission in mind? Will Ava have the ability to hop aboard my cell phone and “walk” along with me, navigating as we go? Or will she start hollering as I make a wrong turn, far down the concourse? (“No, left, left, you moron!”)
Not that Ava would use the word “moron,” and that brings us to another issue: She is too ingratiating. CNN’s Zoe Li can’t get past Ava’s “permanent Julia Roberts’ smile and kindergarten-teacher-on-uppers demeanor. She makes us feel like spoiled children.”
She makes me feel like flipping open her cranium and shouting, “Hellooo down there!” I name no genders, but Ava, I’m afraid, is patently ingratiating to folks who prefer their women malleable and unthreatening. Here’s a sample of her coy, introductory remarks:
For heaven’s sake, who wrote that script? It’s so bad it’s disorienting. Is this 2012 or 1956? What does her dress style have to do with getting me to the loo? This sort of “help” would be more appropriate for a dating service.
At least London’s Luton airport, which installed avatars last year, had the good sense to create both a female and a male version, “Holly” and “Graham.” (Holly + Graham = hologram, get it?) They are also more professional than Ava, offering practical information about getting through the security check efficiently. People stalled in a long line are going to notice them, and listen to them. They may actually prove helpful:
Personally, I think Ava is a marketing mole in deep cover, run by spymasters on Fifth Avenue. Once we’ve become dependent on her, she will withhold vital information until we take a survey or give up our email addresses to her advertising overlords.
Finally, there’s the human angle to consider. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending a reported $180,000 for a six-month rental of Ava’s services. Even I can do the math for how that works out as a monthly salary. Anticipating negative press about not creating jobs for unemployed people, the Port Authority says it will also be hiring an additional 70 humans as part of its scheme to improve customer service, although it doesn’t say when or, if you’ll excuse my cynicism, for how long.
The decision to inflict Ava on travelers was based on the results of a customer satisfaction survey revealing that (drumroll): people wanted more human interaction. I wonder what part of “human” Port Authority authorities don’t get.
“Maybe customers will feel more comfortable listening to an avatar than a live person,” says spokesman Ron Marsico, who apparently wasn’t privy to the survey results.
Am I the only one thinking we can do better here?