This year's Consumer Electronics Show set out to do what it does every January: Publicise and predict how the latest technologies will weave themselves into every aspect of our lives. It's no surprise then that several companies have set their sights on travellers. The industry is one that's always been open to innovation, and it looks like 2018 is going to be a big year for that.
There were several themes on display. Let's take a look at the first, from Intel.
It wouldn't be CES without the introduction of products that look more suited to Star Wars than a Las Vegas convention centre. A perfect example of that was the literal take-off one of Intel's many drone-related projects.
Ever since the car was invented, it seems as though we've been waiting for one to take to the skies and fly us to our destination. Expecting a conventional car to be capable of driving and flight remains far-fetched. But our method of short-distance travelling could be turned upside by the introduction of passenger drones.
At CES on Monday, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showed off the Volocopter, one such passenger drone that's been developed by a Germany aviation startup of the same name. Krzanich admitted that it is "essentially a flying car," but how close are we to seeing these in our skies?
As far as keynote speeches go, Krzanich has plenty of Intel-toys to play with. In the Park Theater at the Monte Carlo Hotel the Volocopter took off without a pilot while it was tethered down.
"Imagine pulling out your phone, opening up a transportation app and summoning your own personalized ride by air taxi," Krzanich said. "That sci-fi vision of the future is actually much closer than you might think."
Indeed, Volocopter has already completed successful trials in Dubai. Compay bosses think it could be just two or three years before commercial operations are underway. Thought Uber was disruptive? This could fundamentally change the way we see (and experience) travel.
In the past few years, startups Airbnb and Uber have become huge household names, successfully riding the twin trends of mobile connectivity and peer to peer sharing. With the level of global connectivity set to expand throughout 2018, there's no reason why platforms such as this won't see continued success.
After all, the step from 4G to 5G is becoming a reality for many. And technologies such as AI and AR are using data in new ways to reach travellers.
“We are progressively building towards the data era of consumer technology,” said Steve Koenig, senior director of research for the Consumer Technology Association. “5G, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and smart cities are all heralds of that coming data age. Increasingly every action, every decision, every choice, every interaction has more and more data behind it.”
Let's start with a closer look at 5G. Why is it such a big deal?
It will come as no surprise that the majority of people in established markets in North America, Europe and Asia have a 4G data connection through their smartphone. This connectivity alone has helped to fuel plenty of travel industry startups with everyday consumers in mind.
For the sake of perspective, 5G networks are fast enough to download a two-hour movie in about three seconds. This year these mobile networks will start to roll out. But it might be a little longer before phones enabled to use these networks hit the market for your average traveller.
“Early 5G networks will sit alongside existing 4G mobile networks to render a feeling of almost unlimited bandwidth for consumers on their mobile devices,” said Koenig. “Maybe that will happen later this year, maybe in 2019, building up to 2020 when we will have the first standalone 5G networks.
“Think about all the disruption we’ve witnessed and experienced in a 4G LTE world, like Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb. Imagine what’s going to be possible in a 5G world. It’s amazing to ruminate on this and ponder the possibilities and new business opportunities that are going to be enabled.”
Koenig is right. The roll-out of 5G will lift the constraints usually placed on travellers when it comes to data. Little things, from sending pictures and Skyping home, to big things, like adding augmented reality to the travel experience, will quickly become the norm.
From a travel industry perspective, companies will be empowered like never before. Customer service could go to the next level, for example. There will be even fewer poorly connected places. In theory, travel service providers could track the locations of their customers, offer live help through video and messaging, and increase the potential to sell add-ons throughout a traveller's journey.
But arguably the biggest change of all will be the home comforts that become instantly available on the road. More bandwidth means more connectivity, more media, more digital tools and more of the things we love, whenever we want access to them.
We've long predicted that VR could really make an impact on the travel industry. So far, there have been relatively few winning applications. Augmented Reality, however, might be an easier way for travel companies to reach a mainstream audience.
“Virtual reality really got its start in the consumer market, if you think of that big hype cycle with Oculus Rift,” said Koenig. “That has really turned to new use cases in the commercial and industrial sectors. Get ready for augmented reality to explode onto the consumer scene; this is going to completely redefine and re-engineer the consumer experience.”
With more maturity and better infrastructure for mobile connectivity worldwide, the next few years could be the point at which augmented reality gives travel companies the ability to build worthwhile applications for travellers. These could direct travellers to destinations, offer sophisticated translation tools and give advice based on their scenario. It could be the point at which travel companies start to offer a truly personalised service.
With all this talk of AR, it's easy to forget the potential of VR. In time, that technology will continue to mature. If only for applications such as making meetings and events immersive for people who can't actually make it. And for marketing potential trips, of course.
“Maybe some of you will be attending this meeting in VR in coming years,” said Koenig.
Last week we spoke about the potential use of biometrics in the world of travel. We mainly mentioned it in the context of boarding gates and airport travel.
But your voice is just as good an indicator of identity, and it's clear that in time it will become a more effective means of communicating with technology than clicking, typing and tapping. Online travel agencies such as Expedia are exploring voice search capability as the next step in travel booking.
“Expect voice to join stores, online, and mobile as that fourth sales channel,” said Koenig. “Already this is starting to happen. Brands are starting to align behind the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant.”
Emerging technology can impact the travel experience from afar. It's not all about digital city guides and real-time translation. Arguably the biggest effect technology has had is to keep us connected with home despite all of the miles in between.
In the coming years, it's clear that the growing Internet of Things will change the way we travel. One great example is the rise of the smart home. Sure, travel is all about leaving home, but that doesn't mean you have to lose your connection with it.
Refrigerators, door locks, kettles, televisions... all are already becoming connected to one extent or another. And that's not to mention the rise in smart home camera systems, helping homeowners check in to see how things are going over the internet. Alerts and notifications can be automated, meaning travellers will never truly be disconnected from home.
Whether that's a good thing depends on the individual. You could be enjoying the sun on the beach half the world away. Real-time video from your house, the ability to play fetch with your dog with the help of a domestic robot, a live feed of the inside of your refrigerator... some travellers might see these as a relief. For others, it might only serve the heighten the anxiety of homesickness.
And what about the new devices that might add something to our travel experience? According to Skift, research suggests that there's been significant growth in one travel accessory in particular: smart speaker. Sales to travellers are expected to grow 60 percent this year alone.
What used to be simple plug-in-and-play devices are now capable of so much more. Speakers are now developing to incorporate AI, voice control and more. They are fast becoming a traveller's gateway to the wider connected world.
“Brands are starting to bring forward their own digital assistants; expect them to start to occupy more vessels,” said Koenig. “Smart speaker [sales will] peak in 2019. Maybe the last iteration of this kind of growth pattern was tablets, and before that was DVD players… [consumers] expect a congruent experience across use cases.”
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