A Look at Parallel Reality, Delta's Wall of Messages Directed at Individual Travelers

Delta, Technology

Delta CEO Ed Bastian’s wide-ranging keynote last week rolled out all sorts of technological goodies, but there was only one that really caught my eye. PARALLEL REALITY is a technology that can project unique, personalized messages to a number of different people from the same exact screen. This sounds like the future, and I could not understand at all how this worked. So, I hopped on a call with Albert Ng, CEO of Misapplied Sciences, to learn more. It’s just as cool as I’d hoped.

Here’s how Delta’s promo video makes it look:

Yeah, that is pretty slick. But how on earth is that happening? Well, it’s all about the pixels. A normal screen is made up of tiny pixels. Each pixel can show one color of light at a time. When you look at a screen, it broadcasts that light out, and any time the image needs to change, each pixel does its job and switches to a different color. It’s basically a high-tech version of those old-timey card stunts (via GIPHY) at a football game.

I know, I know, two animated GIFs in a single post is a lot, but it helps to illustrate what’s going on.

In PARALLEL REALITY, the difference is that each of those pixels has the ability to simultaneously put out a whole bunch of different colors, and it can then direct those colors to show only in a very specific area. It’s so specific that Albert told me they have the ability to direct one message to one of your eyes and another to the other.

That’s why when you look at the messages in the first GIF above, you see different colors for each one. The display is shooting out those different messages using different colors with pinpoint accuracy.

The first test of this will be in Detroit where a screen can show up to 100 unique messages at a time. That’s just how this was designed, but they could have thousands if it was a big enough display that had that many people around.

Your next question is probably the same as mine was. How does the system know where to aim those light beams?

The initial test requires that you scan your boarding pass to opt in. When you do that, there’s a camera above that scans your outline and starts to follow you in the immediate area. It’s that camera that then tells the system where to direct the beams.

This is just the test, but in the future, they have many ideas about how this could work better. One that I assumed would be in the works is using the Fly Delta app. If you have the app, you could in theory flip on permission and then the cameras can track you once they detect your phone in the area. That is one option, but there are others. And it may be possible they don’t need to use cameras. They’re still exploring all options.

The appeal of this is that it can direct personalized messages in any language. In a disorienting global hub, this is hugely helpful. But it doesn’t just have to replace flight information displays. They could embed screens in the ground to provide arrows taking you straight to your gate. They could put a screen anywhere, really. Your own phone may be able to do some of this, but still, having wayfinding built into the airport environment means you don’t need to rely on your own tech.

I asked about how much this all costs, but of course, they won’t say. But they do say that they see a path in the future where this costs about as much as a regular LED screen. If they can get that to happen, this technology has real potential.

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23 comments on “A Look at Parallel Reality, Delta's Wall of Messages Directed at Individual Travelers

  1. DL may be using this tech in a informative, personal manner and good for them. But the myriad of intrusive possibilities really creeps me out. Using these physical “cookies” of a sort to track my every movement is a little disturbing to me. I kind of wish I hadn’t read this article because now I will be overly aware of being tracked, constantly. Tech overload is a real thing, and I try to stay unplugged for at least 3 of my conscious hours each day, and all the gizmos including my phone get turned off when I hit the hay. “Progress” marches on I suppose.

    1. This is more than a little creepy. Gosh, having technology follow me to sell me I probably don’t want? Yikes.

      1. I agree with both ChuckMo and Davey. This is more than a little creepy. What a disturbing way to start out a Tuesday morning!

        I think that this is one of those technologies (like driver less car and pilot less airplanes) that sound really cool and whizzy when thought about in the abstract, but have serious ethical, privacy and implementation issues in reality.

        Anyone that works in software knows that if is programmable, it can be hacked.

        Add to that, someone (I assume Delta flyers) will have to pay to implement this technology whether they actually use it or not.

      2. My sentiments exactly. Imagine this happening outside a controlled area such as an airport concourse? OMG that is frightening when you realize what some countries could do with such tech like China.

    2. apparently you missed the part about “opt in.” You can choose to participate or not – no differently than takes place with any other technology that you already use, including the browser from which you replied to this article.
      The vast majority of people just click through the permissions part of user agreements but you can choose not to pass along your data.
      In the case of the parallel reality screens, you have to scan your boarding pass which is most certainly an opt-in and also allows the cameras to figure out who you are.
      If you walk past the scanner it doesn’t affect you.

      Your reaction is in part because you are finding about new technology that you will see elsewhere; you are just learning about it from an airline.

      1. The degree to which people have already “opted in” without appreciating it is pretty stunning. Google has the best drive-time data because it’s tracking millions of drivers in real time. 20 years ago, the idea that millions of people would have voluntarily tagged themselves with real-time GPS trackers would have seemed strange, bizarre, spooky, dystopian. It happened, and we voluntarily opted into that. Google knows where you have been for the last 10 years or more. More accurately, where your phone has been.

        The Delta technology is right out of the 2002 Tom Cruise film Minority Report, which had the video walls that tracked passers by and gave them ads specialized just for them. 18 years later, and it’s on the verge of being a reality.

      2. You really think the camera can just follow those who “opt-in” while collecting no data on those who did not “opt-in”?

        Someone need to take a crash course on cyber security and privacy.

        1. They would need to have your biometric data; the system works on identifying who you are by your biometrics. While some airlines use biometrics for domestic passenger functions, you have to opt in. I do not know the terms of agreement. Further, I am not sure that the system could pick you out of a crowd even if they had your biometric data; governments can do that.
          A growing number of airlines are using biometrics to board international flights but the data comes from Homeland Security. you can opt out of boarding by biometrics but you can’t ask DHS to delete your data.

          As noted above, Google has far more information on Americans than any other company and they blatantly push it toward you. Apple and Microsoft have equally large amounts of data but are much more guarded with it.

  2. If they can really direct different images to each eye, then they can do “native” 3D imaging without goggles. Not that most people seem to want 3D in their home TVs, but still, pretty neat.

    1. I actually did the demo of this at CES, and you had to be directly behind someone(Close enough to be in their personal space) to see their content. The tech can also have a more generic screen for those that aren’t opting to join the trials of this technology. It is not fine enough yet to send a different image to each eye.

  3. This is both very cool and more than a little creepy – not sure if DL has completely thought through the “optics” on this. If done on an “opt-in” basis, great. If done on an “opt-out” basis, a little heavy-handed, but still pretty good. If there’s no customer options, unnerving.

  4. Maybe I’m missing something but what will this super expense screen tell me that I can’t find out just looking directly at my phone?

    This seems very gimmicky with little actual value add.

    1. Southeasterner – Yes, but you’re assuming your phone is charged or that you have service in some far away foreign land. While I doubt there’s much value for this in a smaller airport, having it in a big global hub could help reduce confusion and stress for travelers who may not be connected to a network far from home.

      1. I think universal global access to cellular networks will become reality faster than this technology will see adoption. See Google FI.

        And if my phone doesn’t have power, I have other problems (no boarding pass, for one) and the display won’t be able to find/track me.

        Wonder if this can be used to display two different movies/TV channels on the same TV screen in a living room. ;)

  5. The people DL is targeting with this tech aren’t old enough to remember Minority Report.

    Generation Z is now growing up and flying. They’ve never known a world without tech. We find things like this Orwellian or “creepy.” They see it as normal, almost an expectation.

    1. very well said.

      And the applications that Delta has for this technology right now are not about transforming anyone’s life but in letting people see something they never connected w/ an airport experience before – and may not have even known existed.

      As noted above, there are enormous amounts of data gathered from consumers now if you use virtually any type of technology, even if you vigilantly try to limit access (which in some cases means you can’t use the app).

      More and more US airports are now equipped with facial recognition technology in order to board international flights, esp. since the US does not have exit immigration controls. I did a double take when the agent told me and others to “just look at the camera and leave the passport in your pocket” but I now realize that the government has had all of the data for years. Now, I can exit from multiple foreign airports (where I am just a visitor) by using my fingerprint and by looking into the camera.

      Putting up a test display in Detroit will be as much about gauging reaction as about seeing whether people get any value out of what is put on the screen.

  6. Facial recognition tech is arguably creepy, but I don’t see anything uniquely creepy about this implementation. Targeted messaging is as old as dirt–companies have been selling mailing lists since before the internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. And the stuff on the screen is the same sort of thing you expect to see on your phone all the time.

    Serious question: what about this demo creeps people out?

    1. It’s what this tech could be used for beyond an airport application that is so creepy. First an airport install & then what, personal adds in Times Square or Las Vegas? These are just examples & then there’s use by governments to spy on their populations.

  7. Ignoring the obvious privacy issues, what is this technology actually worth to real world passengers? I would say close to nothing. If my phone can’t tell me my gate, I’ll go to an old fashioned departures board. I wouldn’t pay anything for greater redundancy.

  8. I already guessed the tech behind it without even reading your explanation.

    Delta is leading the way in developing surveillance technologies under the name of convenience. Work with alclear, implement face check in, and this useless tool.

    At some point, people gotta stop and look at whats happening.

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