Bilbao gets a digital hello

Many tourists, when they step off the plane, have a list of must-see sights and practical advice on their destination earmarked in their guidebook or, increasingly, bookmarked in their smartphone.

For those who haven’t had time to do their own research, their first port of call is usually the airport tourist office.

But what happens if your smartphone’s battery has just died and the tourist office is closed?

Bilbao airport this month unveiled an interactive tourist office to better promote the northern Spanish city to arriving visitors even when the staff have gone home.

As well as a traditional manned information desk, the tourist office is equipped with touch-panel information kiosks that explain onward transportation options and a wealth of other practical advice.

Such information kiosks are hardly new, of course, but the concept has been updated at Bilbao with QR codes that let you capture the information found on the kiosk and download it to your smartphone.

But the real showstopper at Bilbao’s new tourist office is its banks of 48-inch video screens grouped vertically to create seven giant panels and arranged as a circular wall around the office.

The aim of the circular design is to attract the attentions of weary or jet-lagged visitors with promotional videos and slideshows as they pass through the arrivals hall heading in different directions.

Eye-catching it certainly is, particularly when the show-reel paused and a life-size presenter started speaking to me from one of screens when I walked past the tourist office on a recent visit to Bilbao.

I assumed I had stumbled upon the latest real-world example of virtual assistant technology and so I tried to speak back. As well as Spanish, Basque, English, French and German, the presenter also knows sign language.

But as I rapidly discovered, her communication capabilities are strictly one way. My attempts to interrupt the script and engage the presenter in conversation were repeatedly ignored – much to the amusement of bystanders.

That’s a great pity – and a missed opportunity, it seems to me. In the travel sector, virtual assistant technology is starting to make inroads. Orly airport in Paris began experimenting with “virtual” boarding agents last summer.

The life-size agents, which greet Orly departing passengers and direct them to the right gate, appear to materialize out of thin air but are created by projecting avatars onto Plexiglas silhouettes.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are also developing a virtual agent application for airports, although its focus is strictly border control. The ATM-sized system checks travellers’ facial expressions and voices for tell-tale signs that they might be lying.

Tourist information seems a particularly good application for virtual assistants. The technology provides a highly cost-effective way of delivering personalized advice that tourists can, if desired, then download to their own mobile devices.

Virtual assistants can be programmed to understand a wide range of languages and, importantly, they do not take lunch breaks or need any sleep. That’s an important point if, like me, you have ever arrived in a strange airport early in the morning, keen to get a head start on the day’s sightseeing but frustrated at finding the tourist office does not open until 10am.

It is clear that a lot of though has gone into designing Bilbao airport’s “21st century” tourist office.

The designers wanted to stop visitors in their tracks – literally. So the on-screen presenter only appears and starts to speak when a visitor approaches – so catching their attention.

There must also be sort of facial recognition technology, presumably powered by a hidden camera, as the firm responsible for designing the virtual tourist office says it can collect demographic statistics on the sex, age and ethnicity.

But it is a shame the designers did not take the logical next step by having a “real” virtual assistant say “Ongi Etorri”- “Welcome” in Basque.

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