Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Business

AVA is the digital airport avatar that always stays on message

TAMPA — Airports are awash in information. Computer screens list arriving and departing flights. Instructions boom over the PA system. Signs point every which way.

Back when Patrick Bienvenu was an airport consultant, he realized something was amiss with the way all those messages were being conveyed: No one paid attention.

So he came up with a better messenger.

Meet AVA, the Advanced Virtual Assistant. It's a life-sized, lifelike digital projection of a real-life person giving out instructions to people the old fashioned way: by telling them.

"I can advertise your products, promote your facility and guide your customers," AVA said in the prerecorded digital avatar of a petite brunet in a purple sweater and ruffled blouse.

"I am so helpful. I can even provide instructions and give directions. Even better, it won't be long before I can answer questions. How cool is that?"

AVA was designed to capture attention and deliver information — but not, apparently, to be humble. "You're right, I'm really not here," said the digital projection. "But I do look pretty good, don't I?"

• • •

The AVA that Bienvenu modeled for the Tampa Bay Times is the original prototype created two years ago by his company, Airus Media Co.

Here's how it works: The company films a high-resolution video of a spokesperson reading a prepared script. Then the image is projected onto a life-sized acrylic cutout about an inch thick.

It's based on similar systems produced in Europe and Japan, but this one is produced in Plant City and Thonotosassa by Airus.

AVA looks almost like a 3-D hologram, but it's really a high-resolution image projected onto a two-dimensional surface. It's lifelike, but not passive. It can be outfitted with a proximity sensor, for example, that would alert AVA that it has an audience.

"She's so compelling," said Bienvenu, 61. "If there's a message you want to get across, she'll almost stop people dead in their tracks and they'll listen to her.

"Whereas a typical sign, people hardly ever look at it or read it. But with AVA, they look at her and they go 'Wow.' They're amazed by it, and they hear the message. That's the beauty of it."

But AVA does more than deliver a message. It's also designed to get people to pay attention so they'll actually listen. Bienvenu said it's surprising how many don't absorb simple instructions, even while standing in the security lines.

"People simply do not read signs, they do not even listen to live people," he said. "This is a perfect application for … people standing in line who wait until the last minute to get their laptop out and empty their pockets.

"What if you have one of these up front saying, 'please do this'?"

AVA recently made its debut last month at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and last week was unveiled at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports. Tampa International Airport said it has no plans to give the system a try.

The Newark Liberty system is named "Libby." When Libby isn't giving her spiel, the system plays a video of the actor rolling her eyes and twiddling her thumbs. Libby tells passengers what gate they're in and where to go to hail a taxi or catch the train.

• • •

The hardest part is filming the actor. It can take a grueling day, maybe two, just to nail a few lines. The talent will repeat lines over and over again while standing perfectly still.

"It's really hard for the actresses to be standing and not moving," said Wissem Zarrrouk, creative director for Airus Media.

But they have no choice. Since the acrylic cutout can't move, the model can't move, either. Creating the cutout is another technical challenge.

"If we are off by an eighth of an inch," said Zarrrouk, 37, "it just throws the whole thing off."

It can take 30 to 90 days to film an actor, program the video and build the unit. The system is encased in a protective cabinet to shield the projector and acrylic cutout.

"We have some people who come up and put their arm around her," Bienvenu said. "That, we need to avoid."

The cost of each basic system starts from $15,000 to $20,000 without the casing. The price rises with the complexity of AVA's messages and options and falls with the number of units ordered. Airus has up to 100 units under contract.

The more messages the client wants to broadcast, the larger the database of words and images. The client gets to pick the spokesmodel, a man or woman, and the wardrobe and approve the final script. One day, Bienvenu envisions an interactive AVA.

"With the simplest level of voice recognition, she could speak in English or Spanish," he said. "You could give the destination and flight number and AVA comes back: Gate 5B, 2:45 p.m. The technology is there."

AVA is designed to stand in a corner of the airport and broadcast its message nonstop. There's another advantage that AVA itself pointed out: It doesn't need to use the restroom.

"I never take a break, don't charge overtime, hardly ever take sick leave and I don't need a background check," AVA said. "I'm so versatile I can be used for just about anything."

But the applications for AVA go beyond switching languages and answering questions. Imagine a digital avatar of an athlete introducing fans to a sports venue, or a lifelike image of a celebrity endorsing a product.

Digital avatars, Bienvenu believes, could be used at any government office, sporting event or business. AVA's latest customer is XpresSpa, a chain of airport spas.

But AVA's builders insist that the system is not designed to replace human beings, just augment them. AVA can give out basic information so airport employees can handle tougher questions.

"Nothing can replace the human touch," Zarrrouk said. "But you can't have a human sitting in a corner 24-7. This supplements the human experience."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected]

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