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Breakout year for smart gadgets

Grabbing a lot of the tech headlines this year, wearable devices such as fitness wristbands, smartwatches and high-tech headgear, are beginning to break out in air transport.

Yet consumer reaction to the first generation of these gadgets has been decidedly lukewarm underlining that it's still early days for a technology that is forecast to boom.

The products currently available to consumers offer little advancement on the smartphone and other devices we already carry with us.

In addition, there are usability problems involving battery life and computing limitations. SITA’s strategic technology research group, the SITA Lab, was among the first to report these issues.

Nevertheless, major technology companies like Google, Intel and Samsung are investing heavily in the space, which should see huge advances this year as 2nd generation devices with better processing power, communication links, display quality and battery life, hit the market.

SITA’s Chief Technology Officer, Jim Peters goes as far as to say 2014 “is shaping up to be the breakout year for wearable technology.”

Next generation

The improvements are spurring increased interest in using wearable technology for business purposes. Healthcare and sports science have already enthusiastically embraced wearable systems. Virgin Atlantic Airways, so often at the forefront of customer service innovation, has been quick to test the potential.

Last March, the airline launched a six week pilot scheme at London Heathrow airport using Google Glass and Sony Smartwatch 2 to provide concierge staff with real-time information and notifications to ‘meet and greet’ first and business class passengers.

The wearable technologies were integrated with both a purpose-built dispatch app built by SITA and the Virgin Atlantic passenger service system. (See our interview with Tim Graham, IT Innovation and Development Manager at Virgin Atlantic Airways.)


The test was carried out as part of SITA Lab’s evaluation of use cases for wearable devices within the air transport industry. Feedback on the Virgin Atlantic trial has been overwhelmingly positive says SITA Lab’s Innovation Manager, Stephane Cheikh.

“The trial generated a lot of interest with passengers often wanting to try on the Google Glass devices. The concierge staff were also impressed. They found the Sony smartwatches were light and comfortable to wear, as was the Google Glass - even for extended periods.”

Cheikh believes there’s more to it than just a gimmick. “What Virgin Atlantic staff found was that having information pushed to them when they needed it reduced their use of paper and eliminated the need for radios,” he says.

“Such was their enthusiasm that they wanted more functionality on the devices to do more and in the future it’s quite possible that the agent greeting a passenger will know detailed preferences and will be able to complete basic changes to the ticket as required by the passenger”  

Commenting on the trial, Dave Bulman, Director of IT, Virgin Atlantic, said: “Our wearable technology pilot with SITA makes us the first in the industry to test how Google Glass and other wearable technology can improve the customer experience. We are upholding Virgin Atlantic’s long tradition of shaking things up.”

More innovation

Supporting his view was a global survey conducted on behalf of Virgin Atlantic by research company Populus. Results from more than 10,000 airline passengers indicated that there was widespread dissatisfaction of the flying experience, with 42% of travelers worldwide believing flying is less glamorous than it used to be.

Innovations in technology are seen as part of the answer. When asked what would improve their experience of flying in the future, 59% said free on-board Wi-Fi would be the most appealing aspect, the highest of all the choices.  

Other innovations passengers would like to see include personalized menus that you can order in advance and wider use of electronic boarding passes – something already available to airlines using SITA Lab’s mobile boarding Application Programming Interface..

Wear your own device

Such is the spotlight on wearable technology that media attention in the trial was overwhelming, catching even PR savvy Virgin by surprise. Further recognition came with a Smart Technology award from The Wearables 2014 (see –‘SITA and Virgin win tech prize’).

Nevertheless, the jury’s still out on the key question of whether wearable technology has developed enough to use in the work environment. Cheikh however believes it’s moving fast in the right direction.

“There are still technical issues to address – battery life and connectivity, for example, and we need to carefully manage screen content.

“But this was no different to the way smartphones evolved and today our phone is a constant companion in both our personal and work lives.” If he’s right, IT departments will have more than BOYD (bring-your-own-device) to worry about.

For more

‘Is wearable computing the next big thing in air travel?’

SITA and Virgin win tech prize

SITA and Virgin Atlantic Airways received a Smart Technology Award from The Wearables 2014, the leading awards for wearable technology.


Part of the 2014 Wearable Technology Show, the award recognized the companies for a pioneering pilot, which tested how Google Glass and Sony Smartwatches could enhance the passenger experience.


The judging panel commented: "The Virgin Upper Class innovation is a great example of how data from many wearable and mobile devices can make life better for passengers and create a better relationship with the business itself."

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