“It’s safe to assume that users who have opted-in to biometric screening would be initially more open to Parallel Reality,” says Experience The Skies’ Larry Leung. “When Delta rolled out biometric at different airports, they put out infographics, they put out videos to inform the users what they are about to do. And that seems to have gone through pretty well. And I haven't seen any backlash on using biometrics across the board with different airlines. So this is to me, no different than that.”
Among the more left-of-center technology projects Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian touted at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show keynote was the airline’s preview of personalized image messaging displays aimed at travelers in airports.
The technology, created by engineering/design startup Misapplied Sciences and dubbed Parallel Reality, will begin beta testing for passengers departing Detroit Metropolitan Airport in mid-2020, a Delta rep said.
In a release, Delta said Parallel Reality represents “the first step toward a future where the airport environment itself is tailored to each customer.”
While the description of Parallel Reality is likely to remind people of the 2002 Tom Cruise film Minority Report and its depiction of a mall assaulting his character’s eyeballs with personalized video ads, Delta’s Bastian emphasized the usefulness of having airport screens present departing passengers with information such as directions to their gate and the weather forecast at their destination.
How Parallel Reality Works In Realty
The Parallel Reality technology was explored by The Hangar, Delta’s innovation lab that is based near its Atlanta headquarters at Georgia Tech’s Tech Square, as a way to “transform the airport experience.” Delta ultimately made an equity investment in Misapplied Sciences at the start of this year.
The investment comes as Bastian told analysts during the company’s Q4 earnings call that Delta would be spending $500 million a year on technology initiatives.
As Misapplied Sciences co-founder and CEO Albert Ng explained to Fast Company, Parallel Reality can show specific images to multiple viewers from a public digital billboard by aiming different colored pixels to different individuals. For example, the digital signage board can control the display in 18,000 directions for smaller screens, with a larger billboard able to send out signals in about one million separate angles.
Larry Leung, founder and director of Research and Strategy at travel tech consultancy Experience The Skies, saw a preview of Parallel Reality by Misapplied Sciences’ Chief Operating and Chief Creative Officer Dave Thompson in Toronto late last year. That was around the time the airline and the tech company began collaborating, the Delta rep noted.
In Leung’s view, the emphasis on utility makes sense. Furthermore, Delta’s understanding of its loyal customers should help it navigate the pitfalls of the current consumer minefield between demands for more personalization and greater privacy.
“Parallel Reality has many possible use cases, but for Delta, it will likely be posted in one of its lounges, where guests could easily receive their boarding information,” Leung told us after Bastian’s CES presentation. “In his Toronto talk, the [Misapplied Sciences’ Thompson] talked about how the moment you go into the airport, and instead of seeing a huge departure board, you would be able to see only the information about your flight. It basically you put the traveler’s boarding pass onto the reader. Then the display’s camera tracks your movements precisely and immediately, so that it will be able to give you information as you keep walking.”
Avoiding The Creepiness Factor
While it’s a fool’s errand to generalize about consumers’ increasing antipathy to targeted messaging due to privacy concerns, it’s reasonable to suggest that the negativity is largely due to what’s viewed as an unfair value exchange when it comes to the way user data is wielded.
For example, just because someone downloads a restaurant reviews app, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want that app sharing their location history when they’re at home sleeping (at least not without clear, expressed permission from the user). Or, when someone downloads a retail brand’s app to make purchases online, it doesn’t mean they want a push notification on their phone popping up when they’re in a store telling them to look at a shelf in the next aisle over.
Delta should be able to avoid those pitfalls, even if it eventually does use Parallel Reality to send marketing messages, as opposed to info about gate changes, boarding time, and destination weather, Leung said.
“The Parallel Reality display is extremely personalized,” Leung said, adding that Delta's emphasis on utility should help users understand and accept the technology more readily. “Let's just say that you went to the wrong place, or there’s a shorter line for security, or you're entitled to use another check-in counter. While Ed didn’t mention those issues, the display will be able to guide you with personalized wayfinding and help ease the stress of the airport experience.”
As for how Delta should communicate the new tool to passengers, Leung suggested reaching out to specific user groups through an email questionnaire telling the airline’s loyal customers about the new technology to see if they wanted to opt in.
“That would be the easiest path, because Delta already has some insight about certain users’ behavior in terms of how they have been using technology in the past,” Leung said.
In a sense, Delta has already tested its passengers’ interest in balancing convenience and privacy as being one of the first airlines, along with United Airlines, to promote an end-to-end solution with biometrics in partnership with security screening provider CLEAR.
“It’s safe to assume that users who have opted-in to biometric screening would be initially more open to Parallel Reality,” Leung said. “When Delta rolled out biometric at different airports, they put out infographics, they put out videos to inform the users what they are about to do. And that seems to have gone through pretty well. And I haven't seen any backlash on using biometrics across the board with different airlines. So this is to me, no different than that.”