This major airline bets on avatars as the future of travel

What: Japan’s largest airline ANA has unveiled its technology allowing its clients to get the benefit of travel without traveling.

How: To do this, the company is launching what it calls an “avatar-in platform”, allowing people to communicate remotely and virtually experience a remote destination through robot avatars and virtual reality (VR).

The idea is not all new. For one, the new avatar robot resembles Double (and similar), a self-driving, videoconferencing robot which has been used by remote teams and virtual event attendees for a few years now.

More precisely: ANA’s strategy takes the concept a step further, though. The project is part of its ambitious goal to “democratize physical transportation and become the airline for all”. The vision incorporates launching an avatar marketplace and a research and testing facility in Oita, southern Japan. The latter includes a mock space camp that will “test, research, and advanced technologies necessary to accelerate humanity’s exploration of space.”, the company explains.

Rendering of ANA’s Oita testing field. Credit: ANA

Further, unlike teleconferencing solutions, ANA’s avatar program will is intended to eventually include all senses, including touch through various exponential technologies like robotics, haptic devices, AR/VR, AI and others. This, the company hopes will allow people to “teleport their presence, consciousness, knowledge and skills to a remote location.”

Watch ANA present its new avatars, called newme (in Japanese)

Why: At first glance, it might seem somewhat counterintuitive that a major company is expanding into an industry that doesn’t include its core product. In fact, its new philosophy envisages getting rid of planes altogether.

The underlying assumption, however, is that ANA is not in the business of flying, nor aircraft. So, it focuses its efforts on providing the benefit of being in a different location, whether through traveling or virtually. Kind of like teleporting.

The company plans to launch its avatar platform in April 2020 and deploy 1,000 of its avatars by the summer of 2020.