Inside a terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, thousands of passengers a week are finding their way to gates using technology that looks like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Delta Air Lines recently introduced a "Parallel Reality" system that lets travelers access individual flight information on a shared overhead screen based on a scan of their boarding pass - or their face. The twist is that 100 people can do this at a time, all using the same digital screen but only seeing their own personal details.
Unlike a regular TV or video wall, in which each pixel would emit the same color of light in every direction, the board sends different colors of light in different directions.
So what was wrong with the old system? The one where people gaze up at a giant screen with dozens of rows of flights - or down at a tiny screen on their phone?
Greg Forbes, Delta's managing director of airport experience, said the big overhead screens can be misinterpreted, especially in busy airports with multiple daily flights to the same place. And phones can present a safety hazard.
"We've just got a real concern with people walking around full speed, staring at their phones rather than being aware of their environment," he said. So the airline wanted the kind of individual messages that are delivered through an app, but in the form of a large display screen.
"That's where the solution that we hadn't even contemplated came to us," Forbes said. Delta employees encountered the technology, developed by a company called Misapplied Sciences, more than three years ago. Then it partnered with the startup and invested in the company.
Parallel Reality relies on display technology that enables multiple people to look at the same board simultaneously and see personalized information without using a tool like a camera or headset.
"You just look at the displays with your naked eye," said Albert Ng, CEO of Misapplied Sciences.
In Detroit, an overhead motion sensor that tracks moving objects anonymously follows passengers after they scan their boarding pass or face to know where to direct flight information, Ng said. Travelers need to opt in to Delta's facial recognition technology to use the face scan.
Delta's plans for the technology were first announced in January 2020 with plans for a rollout that year, but the pandemic delayed the introduction until late last month.
While the use of facial recognition technology is not necessary for the information boards, Delta has also been adding the option of "digital identity technology," in partnership with the Transportation Security Administration, in multiple airports including Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York's LaGuardia. The airline said passengers will eventually be able to use facial recognition in all U.S. hubs.
Feedback on the display screens has been "great" so far, Forbes said. On busy days, about 1,500 or 1,600 people interact with the technology. He said he expects more installations in the future so the airline can do a "more robust evaluation" of future use.
"If everything keeps going as positively as it has so far, I would expect to see it in more airports and in more places in the airport," he said.