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Real life avatars: At an airport check-in near you – soon

The New Zealander that helped give human faces to creatures, in movies like Avatar and King Kong, has teamed up with an Auckland company making airport software to develop a avatar for self-service check-ins.

Imagine going to check in at the airport and being greeted by your very own virtual assistant on the self-check screen – a friendly face so real you could be talking to someone over Skype.

Artificial intelligence is here, and it could be seen in our airports within the next 18 months, thanks to two New Zealand companies recently signing a deal to develop interactive avatar technology for self-service check-ins around the world.

BCS Group, an Auckland-based company providing baggage handling, self-service check-in and other technology to airports and airlines, has paired up with Oscar-winning Kiwi engineer Dr Mark Sagar to bring the self-service check-in experience to life.

The air-hostess avatar will be able to passengers’ facial expressions and body-language, and talk to them.

“In the lab we’ve been trying to make avatars that have a life of their own, and which add a human touch to an automated system,” Dr Sagar says.

Sagar worked on the rendering of digital actors in movies such as SpiderMan 2, Avatar and King Kong, and won two Oscars for his work on computer-generated faces.

The digital acting in King Kong was a huge leap forward for film-making, because it was the first performance with emotional weight.

Sagar says each person should have a unique experience, as the avatars’ responses can change based on different people’s reaction.

For example, if something’s gone wrong, they’ll be apologetic, and if you’re so tired you could fall asleep on your feet the check-in avatar will keep you clicking through the process, just like a real person.

“It can tell facial expression or body motion. So if someone comes up and the person looks stressed out then you wouldn’t want the machine to be ‘Hey, how are ya?’ It’d be much more serious and businesslike,” he says.

The look of the avatar will be up to the airline or airport commissioning the technology, but the prototype being developed is modeled on scans of a local 25-year-old woman, and is named Xyza.

Xyza is currently being programmed with a multitude of different behaviors and phrases.

Dr Sagar says the technology is a way for airlines to make their brand personalities real.

“We can change the faces and we can put new faces on. Even if they wanted a character – it doesn’t need to be a realistic face.”

This is the first significant commercial deal for Limbic, the commercial spinoff from research being undertaken at the University of Auckland’s Laboratory for Animate Technologies.

Dr Sagar comes from a bioengineering background, and started out doing virtual reality surgical simulation before getting into the film industry.

He says the experience of mapping a human performance to a gorilla in King Kong intensified his interest in how behavior is generated.

“[The gorilla’s] not speaking at all so the whole thing is captured through the eyes and through the face – very subtle things.

“I wanted to see if we could capture that sense of consciousness, that sense of thinking, and transfer that through the system to create a soulful computer-generated character,” he says.

Sagar set up the laboratory at Auckland University in January 2012 and created BabyX, an interactive avatar of a baby modeled on Sagar’s then six-month-old, Francesca.

The technology works by simulating the brain systems that give rise to expressive behavior.

BabyX v3.0 Interactive Simulation from Lab for Animate Technologies on Vimeo.

The technology has many other applications, such as such as virtual personal assistants, companions and teachers. There are also potential applications in video gaming and interactive marketing.

“I’m pretty certain the future is going to be full of these types of things; you just have to watch any SciFi movie and people have been imagining these types of technology for a very long time,” Sagar says.

BCS general manager of services and solutions Marc Michel agrees, and says while the avatar is pushing technological boundaries, it isn’t unbelievable.

“Quite often reality is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?”

Michel says BCS, which has a number of multi-million dollar international contracts and recently reported full year 2014 revenue of $140 million, follows what Auckland University is working on. The company began a relationship with Limbic about nine months ago, after hearing about the avatar technology.

The pairing is a risk, but it’s a risk the company is willing to take, he says.

“There is no commercial applications market for avatars today, so we’re setting about creating that market and creating the product to address that market.

“It’s highly risky but we’re very confident around the commercial applications going forward.”

He says the investment is going to be six-figures, with the main expenses being software development, integration, and testing, as well as project and client management. But he thinks the avatar technology has unlimited potential.

 “We find it exciting. We refer to it as a blue sky project – it’s unfettered in terms of where it potentially could go, albeit that it always has the commercial grounding.”

Within six months Limbic will have developed a prototype for BCS to demonstrate to potential partner airlines or airports, which are the main markets for the technology, Michel says.

“The staff cost in an airline is a particularly large component of their overall cost structure, alongside fuel, so abilities to gain leverage in those areas from a technology standpoint is something that they’re exceedingly interested in.”

BCS’s BAGgate technology is already at use at Melbourne International airport

However he refutes those that say the technology will cost human jobs.

“If you had asked someone in the 19th century what they thought of the 20th century you’d probably get those same responses, and it’s just an ongoing evolution of technology and how it impacts peoples lives. But our view is it’s entirely in a positive way and it enhances the passenger experience.”

Michel says based on initial conversations they have already had a lot of market interest and he thinks it shouldn’t be more than 18 months before travellers are interacting with avatars at check-in.

“We’ve already given some clients a brief overview of what we’re doing and they’re extraordinarily excited about it,” he says.

While he cannot promise that Kiwis will be the first to see the technology in action, he does think the early adopters will be in the Asia Pacific region.

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