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Could smart clothing help us ‘fly’?

Wearable computing is set to benefit airport staff, according to a SITA Lab report

Smart watches and smart glasses and other wearable computing devices will benefit the region’s increasingly busy airports, according to the latest findings from SITA Lab.

The technology research team of the air transport industry’s IT provider, SITA has conducted the earliest trials into the use of wearable computing at airports and issued its findings in a paper released today.

Technology observers are touting wearable computing as the next big thing that could redefine how we use and interact with information. The biggest buzz is around smart watches and smart glasses, helped by launches from high-profile consumer giants, such as Sony, Samsung and Google. It is estimated that more than 1.2 million smart watches will be shipped in 2013.

A less-developed wearable market until very recently has been smart headgear. However, Google grabbed the headlines in early 2013 with the launch of a head-mounted display device, called Google Glass, to a select group of users. SITA Lab was one of the few selected developers to receive both the Google Glass and Vuzix M100 devices before their public launch. It carried out tests for a variety of uses in airlines and airport settings.

“Wearable devices, such as Google Glass, offer new opportunities to mobilise staff, keeping their hands free, while connecting them to the traditional check-in and reservation systems,” says Jim Peters, CTO at SITA Labs.

“Interaction can be via video analysis of what a staff member is looking at, such as a boarding pass, bag tag, voice recognition or a combination of both. It is no major surprise that our research into this developing technology shows that there are issues to address. This is inevitable with any new technology. SITA Lab saw some of the same challenges when testing some of the first smartphones several years ago.”

As part of its testing, SITA Lab developed an application called SWIFT Boarding using the smart headgear’s built-in camera as a scanner and heads-up display. The aim was to allow agents in the boarding area to securely scan and verify both boarding pass and passport simultaneously, while wearing smart glasses. Both documents were held side by side, while the app matched the two documents to ensure they belong to the same person.

As a proof of concept, the SWIFT application was a success. Smart glasses can scan travel documents and loyalty cards. However, they are not fast enough to be able to meet the high-speed passenger processing requirements at airports. Matching the documents take longer than the industry’s one-second benchmark, making it unviable as an alternative to existing systems, until more powerful smart glasses are developed.

Peters adds: “Specifically, our research at SITA has shown that for any type of use in the air transport industry, technology needs to be more robust to avoid breakages and the cost will have to come down. The camera quality will also need to be enhanced. Currently, it requires near-perfect light conditions within the airport for scanning documents to be successful. Other areas to be addressed include bandwidth for widespread use, battery life and, of course, cultural and social issues both for passengers and employees.”

SITA Lab identified many of these issues before with smartphones and the expectation is that they will disappear as new devices are released in the next 12 to 18 months. When that happens, the potential that wearable computing promises may lead to new and innovative uses by the air transport industry. Early experimentation, such as the research by SITA Lab, is a key process to discover what new technologies can offer to the industry.