Wednesday was the first day on the job for Marie, LaGuardia Airport’s newest customer service hire: a virtual avatar designed to answer questions and help guide visitors through the airport.
The round-faced, chestnut-haired young woman we saw before us was merely a video of a human woman–the Port Authority wouldn’t disclose the actress’s name–projected on to a 2D flat screen shaped like a woman’s body. The static effect was less Tupac hologram and more Tour Guide Barbie™.
Standing in the arrivals area of Terminal B, Marie spews a stream of basic information for arriving passengers, including the location of the bathrooms and baggage claims, and directions to various forms of ground transportation. In a rare moment of silence, the avatar shifts her eyes pointedly from left to right, performatively twiddling her thumbs.
“You can see, when nobody’s asking her any questions, she looks around, she smiles, she twiddles her thumbs a bit,” Tom Bosco, the General Manager of the airport remarked with a laugh, visibly charmed by the new addition to the airport staff.
“She can answer questions?” Betabeat inquired enthusiastically. Mr. Bosco quickly conceded, that no, the avatar was not capable of processing or responding to human interaction, explaining that the technology currently plays a 90-second sound loop which reactivates anytime a person is within 30 feet of the apparatus.
“But she answers the basic questions a customer might have, like where are the restrooms, where do I catch the train, where’s the departure board, those kind of things,” Mr. Bosco explained.
A group of LaGuardia’s live customer service employees were less generous when assessing the avatar’s utility. “If you’re walking, are you really going to stop and wait until she gets to the part about the bathroom, or are you going to look for a sign,” one customer service representative who wished to remain unnamed asked rhetorically.
Marie, named after the wife of the airport’s namesake, Fiorello LaGuardia, is one of three identical avatars debuting on behalf of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey this summer. “Libby” appeared at Newark Liberty International Airport on July 27, and “Sarah” begins work at John F. Kennedy Airport on Thursday. Each installation cost the Port Authority $60,000.
“We think it’s a good investment,” Mr. Bosco said confidently, explaining that the three avatars will undergo a trial period of six months before any decisions are made to add more.
Emphasizing that the technology will not be replacing human staff, Mr. Bosco assured us that the avatar “supplements the existing staff.” And indeed—near the end of her minute-and-a-half long spiel, Marie informs her audience that they can also visit a nearby welcome desk or talk to “other” customer service representatives for further assistance.
Mr. Bosco explained that he also hoped Marie would help with the airport’s initiative to reduce “hustling” by unlicensed cab drivers by warning visitors, “For your own safety, don’t accept rides from individuals soliciting rides.” Other tips are a little more painfully obvious: “Once aboard the bus, listen to the announcements for your stop,” Marie perkily advises.
The point, Mr. Bosco insisted, is that this newfangled technology is more likely to catch people’s attention. “If you saw a TV screen, would you pay attention to it, or would you pay attention to her?” he argued, clearly believing the answer to be self-evident. Yet despite some reports from Newark Liberty that passengers found Libby to be “freaky” or even “scary,” most passersby at LaGuardia seemed largely unfazed. Indeed, as much as she captivated Mr. Bosco, many failed to fully register Marie’s virtual presence.