From 50 ways to leave your lover, as the song goes, to 750 types of shampoos, we live in an endless sea of choices. And although I haven’t been in the market for hair products in a while, I understand the appeal of picking a product that’s just right for you, even if the decision-making is often agonizing. This quandary (the “Goldilocks Syndrome”, of finding the option that is “just right”) has now made its way to the travel industry, as the race is on to deliver highly personalized and contextual offers for your next flight, hotel room or car rental.
Technology, of course, is both a key driver and enabler of this brave new world of merchandising in the travel business. But this is not your garden variety relational-databases-and-object-oriented-systems tech. What is allowing airlines, hotels and other travel companies to behave more like modern-day retailers is the clever use of self-learning systems, heuristics trained by massive data sets and haptic-enabled video hardware. Machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are starting to dramatically shape the way we will seek and select our travel experiences.
Let every recommendation be right
AI is already starting to change how we search for and book travel. Recent innovation and investment has poured into front-end technologies that leverage machine learning to fine tune search results based on your explicit and implicit preferences. These range from algorithms that are constantly refining how options are ranked on your favorite travel website, to apps on your mobile phone that consider past trips, expressed sentiment (think thumbs up, likes/dislikes, reviews) and volunteered information like frequent traveler numbers.
Business travel, as well, is positioned for the application of AI techniques, even if not all advances are visible to the naked eye. You can take photos of a stack of receipts on your smartphone; optical character recognition software codifies expense amounts and currencies, while machine learning algorithms pick out nuances like categories and spending patterns.
AI is also improving efficiencies in many operational systems that form the backbone of travel. Machine learning is already starting to replace a lot of rule-based probabilistic models in airport systems to optimize flight landing paths to meet noise abatement guidelines, or change gate/ramp sequencing patterns to maximize fuel efficiency.
Making decisions based on reality
VR and AR are still changing and evolving rapidly, with many consumer technology giants publicly announcing products this year we can expect to see rapid early adoption and mainstreaming of these technologies. Just as music, photos, videos and messaging became ubiquitous thanks to embedded capabilities in our phones, future AR and VR applications are likely to become commonplace.
VR offers a rich, immersive experience for travel inspiration, and it is easy to imagine destination content being developed for a VR environment. But VR can also be applied to travel search and shopping. My company, Amadeus, recently demonstrated a seamless flight booking experience that includes seat selection and payment. Virtually “walking” onto an airplane and looking a specific seat you are about to purchase makes it easier for consumers to make informed decisions, while allowing airlines to clearly differentiate their premium offerings.
AR will probably have a more immediate impact than VR, however, in part due to the presence of advanced camera, location and sensor technology already available today on higher-end smartphones. Airports are experimenting with beacon technology where an AR overlay would be able to easily and quickly guide you to your tight connection for an onward flight, or a tailored shopping or dining experience if you have a longer layover.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” goes Arthur C. Clarke’s famously quoted third law. But as we expect more authentic experiences: precise search results, an informed booking or an immersive travel adventure, we can count on increasingly magical technology from systems that learn to deliver us our “perfect bowl of porridge.”