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Virgin's innovation, Interview

One of the coolest technology jobs on the planet has to be the role of innovation guru at some large company.

We spoke to Tim Graham, IT Innovation and Development Manager at Virgin Atlantic Airways, at the end of one of his latest projects to provide concierge staff for upper class passengers with wearable technology.

Just how cool is your job?

Pretty damn cool! The whole ethos at Virgin Atlantic is to continually raise the bar on the way we work and the service we provide to passengers. That means innovation is always high on the agenda so I spend a lot of my time working with new technologies to separate the good and bad innovation.

How did the wearable computing project come about?

We heard SITA was conducting experiments with Google Glass and smartwatches in late 2013. The possibility of using wearable technologies to improve customer service really caught my imagination so we got together and created a six week-long project to test them at London Heathrow Airport.

It was only a small scale project using just one pair of Google Glasses and three Sony SmartWatches, but it really grabbed the media’s attention. We were inundated with questions from journalists, as were SITA. It just goes to show what a hot topic wearable computing is at the moment.

How did the devices work and what difference did they make?

We equipped our concierge staff with either Google Glass or a Sony SmartWatch 2, which was integrated with a purpose-built dispatch app built by SITA and our passenger service system.

As our business-class passengers arrived at Virgin’s limo drop-off area , called the Upper Class Wing, the concierge staff received individual passenger information directly on their smart glasses or watch.

This allowed them to accept jobs assigned to them and then greet the passenger and provide personal assistance.

It also allowed the staff to update the passenger on their flight status and associated destination or return trip details and mark the job as done once the process was complete indicating they were free to deal with the next passenger.

Every day, our staff would get ideas about how to improve the technology with new features or pieces of information to add such as ways to help them carry out security checks or provide destination weather forecasts - anything that could provide a better and more personalized service.

Our agents had immediate access to the latest information without the need to go to a computer. It also cut out the need to use radios. They had the answer to the passenger's questions almost before they asked them. Having those little bits of information kept them from having to go and stand behind a desk.

How did staff and passengers react?

There was a concern from some concierge agents initially about how it would make them look –particularly with Glass – but once the first agent had led the way the others were quick to get behind the project.

Passenger reaction has been mostly positive. We disabled the headset camera and video recording functions on the Google Glass to avoid any privacy concerns, but we found people were more curious than scared by the technology.

We did a good job of getting over the message that the trial was about using information we already knew about them in a smarter way to get them through the process quicker, so there were no Big Brother type concerns.

The Sony SmartWatches received less attention from passengers due to their lower visibility. The agents also needed to be careful to not look down at them too often in order to avoid giving passengers the impression they were checking the time rather than paying attention.

Is wearable technology mature enough for the workplace yet?

It is definitely getting there. Many of my initial concerns with the technology did not materialize.

For instance, I thought continual usage in a work environment would take its toll on the devices and we would start to see them get damaged or experience reduced performance. But that was not the case.

However, we only tested them indoors, so an outdoor environment, such as airside on the tarmac, might be more challenging with the weather conditions.

I also thought connectivity could be an issue. We used 3G as the phone network for the trial, which is heavily used here at Heathrow with so many mobile phones carried by passengers. But generally it worked well. However, switching to using Wi-Fi drastically improved reliability.

The battery life for the devices in the trial, particularly Google Glass, could also have caused problems but we found that because the Glass devices were activated on an as-needed basis by our staff and therefore not in constant use, it was not a big problem. The devices could be changed in breaks on busy days.

Where do you go from here?

With the trial over we will now look at any technical difficulties that we found and gather feedback from employees and customers. The main purpose was to learn and gain insight on the technology in a real life environment. This has been very successful.

There are other airline operations that could also benefit from wearable devices. For example, if you could use Google Glass to scan a bag and see the bag is in the wrong place, that sort of application could be helpful.

So baggage handling is one scenario, but there are also interesting possibilities in aircraft maintenance and turnaround processes, as well as passenger check-in and boarding.

What other new technologies are getting you excited?

The mobile channel, for sure, is something we are keenly exploring because it will let us personalize and differentiate our offering to passengers. And this is something that is becoming increasingly important.

One of the main messages that came out of our research conducted by Populus with 10,000 airline passengers was that flying had become a homogenous experience. Technology offers a way to address this.

One new area we are looking at with SITA is Beacon technology. These are low-powered Bluetooth transmitters that can notify nearby mobile devices of services and discounts in their vicinity, as well as boarding updates.

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