Virtual assistant Paige turns heads at Dulles

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Even the jet-lagged love Paige, the latest greeter at Washington Dulles International Airport. When arrivals at the international terminal catch sight of her on their slog toward customs, they stop in their tracks, not only to listen to what she has to say — but to giggle, point and snap pictures with their cell phones. Parents often have to drag their gawking children away.

All this would be terribly rude behavior if Paige were alive, but she isn’t. She is what’s being called “a virtual assistant.”

“Paige is part of the next generation of signage,” says James Baker, vice president of business development for her creator, Tensator. The attractive brunette dressed casually in polo shirt and pants is actually a life-size, seemingly 3-D, high-definition image projected onto an acrylic screen. Baker stresses that Paige is not, as widely reported, a hologram, which is an image created by lasers.

Paige, who arrived at Dulles on May 8, is on a three-month free trial at the airport, says Dennis Hazell, associate executive staff coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (WMAA). So far, he says, “She’s been extremely popular and effective.”

There is a real Paige — a theater student in New York, who was chosen for the role because of her personality. Hazell wrote the 70-second message for her to deliver at Dulles. It mixes practical information about how passengers can expedite their trip through customs with a short history of the airport, an architectural landmark designed by Eero Saarinen, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year.

Paige is not interactive, but Baker says Tensator is working on a prototype for that.

The Dulles virtual assistant is the first in a U.S. airport, although Tensator, an international company that specializes in crowd control, has similar signage at overseas airports in locales such as Dubai, Frankfurt and Edinburgh.  New York City’s largest drugstore, Duane Reade, also has a virtual assistant.

Neither Tensator nor WMAA would give even a ballpark estimate of the cost of a virtual assistant. A price tag of $250,000 is cited widely on the Web, though without any specific attribution. Upkeep is minimal, however, and Paige can be on duty 24-7, freeing up real employees to do one-on-one customer service.

Paige currently welcomes about 3,000 international passengers a day. “We’re trying to improve the customer experience,” Hazell says. “Customers say, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ ” So far, his only complaint about Paige is that she could use more amplification, and he is working with Tensator to rectify that issue.

Hazell believes that Paige could be effective in other areas of the airport, too, such as on the train platforms or the security mezzanine. Luckily, she is on wheels. “We might just roll her in and out,” he says.

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