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Air New Zealand with HoloLens
An Air New Zealand flight attendant tries out the HoloLens mixed-reality headset. (Air New Zealand via YouTube)

Imagine a world where headset-wearing flight attendants can instantly know how you’re feeling based on a computer analysis of your facial expression.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine: That world is already in beta, thanks to Air New Zealand, Dimension Data and Microsoft HoloLens.

In May, the airline announced that it was testing HoloLens’ mixed-reality system as a tool for keeping track of passengers’ preferences in flight – for example, their favorite drink and preferred menu items. And if the imaging system picked up the telltale furrowed brow of an anxious flier, that could be noted in an annotation displayed to the flight attendant through the headset.

“This software is a great example of us collaborating with other partners, and exploring how technology could enhance the way our people work as well as the experience they deliver to our customers through greater personalization,” Avi Golan, Air New Zealand’s chief digital officer, said in a news release.

Kelly Malone
Kelly Malone is vice president of marketing and business development at Taqtile. (Via LinkedIn)

Kelly Malone, vice president of marketing and business development for Taqtile, a Seattle-based startup focusing on mixed reality and virtual reality, is confident that airline passengers will eventually become characters in an immersive HoloLens environment.

That immersion may take a different form, however.

“I’m not sure that I would feel great about somebody walking up with this big thing on their face and interacting with me, without me at least understanding what it is that they’re seeing inside there, right?” Malone told airport executives in downtown Seattle on Wednesday.

“But in a security context, I can definitely see that today,” he added.

It’s more likely that headset-wearing airport security agents will someday use facial-recognition software and a cloud-based, mixed-reality system – not only to get a read on your mood, but to check virtual travel documents and look for any red flags in your record.

Malone, who worked on business development for HoloLens and other Microsoft devices before joining Taqtile, sketched an outline of the brave new mixed-reality world at the third annual Airport Innovation Forum, organized by the American Association of Airport Executives.

Unlike virtual reality, the mixed-reality world created by the HoloLens system starts out with the real-world environment, and then overlays computer-generated graphics on the headset’s display. Wearers can interact with virtual objects through gestures and voice commands.

The technology holds promise for training, simulation and visualization, as NASA and the U.S. military are finding out.

Commercial ventures are finding out as well: For example, Finland’s Helsinki Airport is using HoloLens’ mixed-reality environment to keep tabs on airport operations – using an overlay environment that looks eerily like the control center on HBO’s “Westworld” sci-fi series.

HoloLens at Helsinki Airport
Helsinki Airport demonstrates how the Hololens system can create a tabletop 3-D visualization of airport operations. (SITA Photo)

Japan Airlines uses HoloLens as a supplemental training tool, while ThyssenKrupp uses it to let veterans guide less experienced engineers through a tricky elevator repair job.

Apps such as HoloFlight, which visualizes air traffic control data as a tabletop 3-D environment, hint at the future of mixed reality for airlines and their travelers.

With the rise of the Internet of Things, mixed-reality systems could point out airport infrastructure that needs to be checked or replaced just by turning it a different color in the headset display.

“We think that’s a really big game-changer in this space,” Malone said.

Taqtile is tackling the mixed-reality space with three applications: HoloMaps, which makes it easier to turn a real-world landscape into a navigable 3-D simulation, overlaid with data displays; Manifest, which lets workers record and replay complex procedures in mixed reality; and Pedestal, a tool that facilitates collaboration in virtual 3-D environments.

The way Malone sees it, the future is bright for mixed reality, virtual reality, augmented reality and everything in between. He cited figures suggesting that sales of head-mounted displays will more than double every year, reaching an estimated 76 million units by 2020.

Will air travelers just have to get used to somebody walking up to them with a big thing on their face? Maybe not, Malone said.

“Down the road, these devices are going to get more powerful, they’re going to last longer, and they’re also going to get smaller,” he said. “It won’t be too long before they’re just a regular pair of glasses. In fact, there are already hardware suppliers out there who have been issued patents for this technology being inside contact lenses. So it won’t be too long before this technology is almost invisible to us.”

Now do you feel better about the future of flight? Let me check my lenses.

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