How wearables will change travel

Checking in via Google Glass to VR visits, your trip will never be the same again
How wearables will change the way we travel

The airport is often the worst part of going on holiday. With queues, delays, and endless requests to see your boarding pass, it’s a wonder we go away at all. Experts reckon wearables have the power to transform this experience, along with every stage of our travels, making for much less stressful trips.

People are ready for the change. According to the Passenger IT Trends Survey 2014, 77% of respondents would be comfortable with airport staff using wearable technology to help them on their way. Wearable tech was also one of the trends picked out by the travel industry trade fair World Travel Market this year.

The advantages are obvious. It’s much more convenient to store your documents electronically so you can’t lose them, and with notifications of gate changes and delays sent straight to your smartwatch, you’ll be up to speed immediately. But there are other benefits too.

“One of the big advantages for travellers is wearing a device that can broadcast their identity,” explained Stephane Cheikh, innovation manager at SITA Lab, the development arm of the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and IT. “Instead of showing your passport and boarding pass at every stage – checking in, security, buying duty free – persistent identity can streamline the process, making for a seamless experience.”

Cheikh picks out Nymi – a wristband that reads your heartbeat and unlocks your devices when you’re near – and the Apple Watch as devices that could replace your passport and boarding pass. He says air traffic controllers could use Oculus Rift to immerse themselves in all the different systems they use, while Cheikh’s staff have been experimenting with the Epson Moverio to check in passengers. Instead of queuing for hours, passengers will just type in their booking reference and the system does the rest. Easy.

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The Moverio and Rift aren’t the only headsets to find their way into the airport. Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic decked out staff in its Upper Class Wing with Google Glass. They could then inform passengers on the latest flight information, weather at their destination, and any local events. Staff could also be told of the passengers’ dietary requirements using the device. The trial was a success, and Virgin is looking at rolling it out across the company.

Of course, the wearable scope extends way beyond the airport. Starwood Hotels and Resorts – who own 1,162 hotels worldwide, including the W Hotels – recently introduced an app that lets you check in with your smartphone, and at the Apple Watch launch a wrist-based version of the app was demoed.

No queuing for reception, no key card to lose, you wouldn't even have to take your phone out of your pocket. Just touch your smartwatch on the door, and in you go.

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This might sound light-years away, but inroads are being made. Holidays Please has started giving customers Google Glass to use on their trips, so they can get local info and directions as they explore. Travel technology company Sabre recently brought its TripCase travel itinerary management app to the Samsung Gear S, and notifications to Android Wear smartwatches and the Pebble and Pebble Steel. The app is expected to be used on 25 million trips in the next 12 months. The company’s innovation manager, Joakim Everstin, reckons the ‘glanceability’ of wearables makes them perfect for travelling.

“The fact you can see at a glance whether something is important or not is key to smartwatches’ success,” he said. “I can see it while on a conference call in the back of a taxi, as opposed to having to open an email on my phone.”

Looking further ahead, smart fabrics could mean we only have to take one set of clothes with us. Phase-change fabrics are being developed that warm you up when it’s cold, and cool you down when it’s warm. You wouldn’t have to plan for all conditions, which would make packing a lot simpler.

There are some obstacles to overcome, however. There is still a fair bit if resistance to Google Glass – not everyone wants to walk around with it on his or her face. But there are more technical limitations too.

“One thing holding back smartwatches is that they have very limited input capabilities,” Everstin says. “The challenge is to make speech recognition a lot better.

“In our tests in an airport, Google Glass’ accuracy was 84%. That might sound high, but 16% of commands are failing, which in practice is very off-putting. It needs to get a lot better before we see an explosion in wearables.”

GPS also needs to be more accurate, if apps are to direct you to the right airport gate. “Airlines could pinpoint exactly where their passengers are who need to be on board in half an hour,”Everstin says. No more scrabbling around trying to find those missing families.

Finally, battery life is a big hurdle. Carrying another charger is a drag, and having to juice up every night a real chore.

But that’s not to play down wearables' potential. Virtual reality could open whole new possibilities for travellers. Samsung recently demoed its Oculus-built Gear VR headset alongside Project Beyond – a 360-degree camera that essentially teleports you to anywhere in the world. It maps the terrain and streams the info back to create a completely immersive virtual reality environment. Don the Gear VR headset, and it’s as good as being there.

Everstin says virtual reality won’t replace normal travel (“not unless Total Recall becomes real”), but it could revolutionise the planning stage.

“We’ve been thinking about a travel agency that specialises in honeymoons, which is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” he says. “It could take you on a virtual tour of the different resorts without leaving the office, so you could make sure you choose the one best for you.”

Imagine it, swanning around the bar, checking out the pool, taking a stroll through the golf course…the only thing you can’t do is taste the drinks.

Whatever the future of travel holds, one thing is clear: you’re going to have to travel light to fit all those wearables and chargers in your bag. Let’s hope those smart fabrics arrive sharpish.

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