Neutral Digital’s foray into touchless, gesture-controlled experiences at the 2014 APEX EXPO introduced a new way to interact with in-flight entertainment and was arguably ahead of its time. The technology may enjoy a resurgence in the post-COVID-19 cabin as travelers come to expect low-touch environments.
Six years is an eternity in the ever-evolving tech world, as evidenced by the fact that iOS 8, the Amazon Fire phone and the Flappy Bird mobile game have all been relegated to the dustbin of history and replaced by the next big thing. But in some cases, new technology is ahead of its time. Inside the Panasonic Avionics Cool Room at the 2014 APEX EXPO, Neutral Digital unveiled two devices that have taken on a new relevance in the current pandemic-wary travel climate.
The first gadget is a ring called NOD that can transform finger movements and flicks of the wrist into commands for smart devices. The other, called Leap Plus, is a small sensor that interprets the gestures of a hand hovered above it. Both were used during APEX EXPO 2014 to navigate IFE menus and a variety of content within. At the time, Neutral Digital’s mandate from Panasonic Avionics was simply to produce something new and novel that generated excitement. A four-person development team spent six weeks conceiving practical gesture-based input solutions that would respond to subtle “micro-movements,” mindful of space constraints in the economy class cabin.
The NOD ring was discontinued, but cofounder and COO of Neutral Digital Adam Randall points out that it was succeeded by many similar and smaller products on the market. The Leap found success through integrations in laptops and VR headsets, and was acquired by UltraHaptics in 2019. However, Randall says that the current crisis offers “an opportunity to redefine customer engagement” in the aircraft cabin. He predicts that as far as content delivery and IFE interaction goes, gesture, voice and remote control via personal devices will be the preferred method of interaction in the near future.
Different sectors of the travel industry can also take advantage of current technological advancements. “The maturity of cloud-computing platforms is allowing us to deliver ultra-realistic 3D experiences — that previously required high-powered PCs — to any device with a reasonable internet connection,” said Randall. The company’s latest work showcases this. Neutral Digital rolled out an app that allows shoppers at Copenhagen Airport to virtually try on lipstick and decide on a shade, even while wearing a mask. AR LipstickBar will also be introduced in Frankfurt soon. The company also launched a fully digital, contactless locker station as a delivery solution at CPH duty-free.
I’ll be honest, this content and hardware has sold me on #VR after many years of “ get that nauseating headset away from me”. 😂@neutraldigital has worked with @AirCanada @cathaypacific @British_Airways & more. #PaxEx #traveltech #airlines @theAPEXassoc pic.twitter.com/alXEG6xgFk
— Maryann Simson (@JetwayMJ) November 1, 2019
Right now, safety is a number one priority for the industry, and Neutral Digital believes that any technology that removes the need for touch is valuable for companies looking to engage customers in a safe manner. Randall pointed to a new device that gives haptic feedback during touchless gesture control via arrays of ultrasound speakers that emit waves a user can feel on their hand. The agency is also predicting a rise in demand for digital twins, which Randall says allow airlines and airports to plan and design in 3D before committing to marketing, sales, retail, design and training solutions and thus reduce contact and costs.
When asked if all this touchless tech sacrifices the human touch that humans find essential, Randall pointed to the success of the company’s virtual reality and interactive projects for Cathay Pacific, Air Canada and British Airways. “There is an appetite for immersive content that mimics ‘human touch’ and leaves a lasting impression of the experience.”