Business Travel In 2010: Biometrics, 3D, And RFID

From receiving video-mail to having your iris scanned at airport security, here's what the world of business travel and communications might look like in the not-so-distant future.

August 10, 2006

11 Min Read
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As Web conferencing gets better and better, you may find yourself wondering: In a few years, will we still need to travel for business?

In a word, yes. Web conferencing can be an efficient and inexpensive way to work with far-flung clients or co-workers, and as it becomes more popular, it will certainly cut down on business travel. But nothing can completely replace in-person interactions. Most companies will still want at least one face-to-face meeting before signing a big deal, for instance.

The good news is that business travel will likely be less tedious in the future. Airports and airlines are continually looking for ways to improve your experience before, during, and after a flight. And mobile technologies are making great leaps forward so you can get better use out of the downtime that inevitably accompanies travel.

The following fictional narrative imagines what business communications and travel might be like just a few short years from now. We're not talking wearable jetpacks or teleportation -- this is all based on real-world technologies that are in development or beginning to be available now.

So get ready: You're about to travel from New York to San Francisco in the year 2010.

-- Valerie Potter

Your Day Begins

New York City, 6:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT)
You wake up to NPR news. On the wall in your bedroom, a flat-screen display shows your daily schedule, the weather, and the e-mails and video-mails waiting for you. Uh-oh, there's an urgent message -- the v-mail screen is flashing red.

No bad news today, please. After months of Web conferencing, today's the day you're traveling to San Francisco for a face-to-face meeting with the new Chinese investors in your company. You'll shake hands and sign the deal that puts your mid-sized company on the international map.

Get it over with. "Display urgent v-mail," you say. The divided display screen disappears and is replaced by the face of John F. Kennedy. Through computer animation, the former U.S. president confirms that your flight is on time and informs you that an aisle seat is now available due to a last-minute cancellation. As a preferred JFK International Airport traveler on the waiting list for aisle seats, you can give up your middle-row seat and take the better seat. You jump at the chance. This service is offered through JFK's new Integrated Travel Department, a one-stop-shop for the business traveler. Having Mr. Kennedy as your customer service rep never fails to give you a thrill.

Jump in the shower, where there's more good news. You've gained two pounds of muscle, according to your health-monitor shower readout.

Dried and in your robe, you video-call the office. Your assistant Terry expects your call. She's been working on a holographic model of your trade-show booth that will be the highlight of today's presentation to the investors.

"Don't ask me anything right now," she says. She looks tired. "The booth looks flat and the Chinese characters look like a collection of pick-up sticks. Do we have to have the spinning globe at the entrance? A football I can do. An accurate topographical map of the world is asking too much. And don't tell me I look tired."

You stare at the screen with a look of hopeful expectation.

"Ving me back in a hour," she says. "I should have something for you to look at then." The display darkens, and your standard information screen appears.

Get dressed, grab your tablet and overnight bag, and you're out the door.

8:05 a.m. EDT
Snubbing the streamlined hybrid Cadillac that other executives ride to the airport (the car service hasn't gotten hip to hydrogen fuel-cell cars yet), you're one of the urbanites who takes pride in taking public transportation each and every time. It never hurts to save a $250 car fare, either. You beat the traffic, still hellish even with 40 percent of all workers telecommuting, and know that surveillance cameras help keep you safe even in the press of people on the subway. Like every New Yorker, you can repeat the recorded message word-for-word:

"Thank you for using New York Public Transportation. For your safety, and the safety of others, your trip is being recorded. If you need assistance, please contact our Safe Travel Bureau at 1-800-"

You can even repeat it in Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian -- the order the recording always uses.At The Airport And In The Air

8:47 a.m. EDT
At the airport, you use the Ticketed Departing Passengers turnstile, press your right index finger to the reader, and your RFID boarding band spits out. Luckily you've got only carry-on luggage, so you don't have to get in line to check your bags. Even now they haven't figured out a way to make that process smoother. An airline employee still must take the bags, attach RFID tags, and time-stamp them, and passengers must still acknowledge responsibility for the contents of their luggage.

Wrap your identifying band around your wrist, and you're cleared for everyplace you want to go within the airport. Face-recognition software works hand-in-hand with the RFID wristband as you make your way. No sneaky trying to change bands, either. There was a flurry of activity when this system was first introduced -- mostly flyers with nonrefundable fares trying the switcheroo with the bands after selling their tickets to someone else. Not a good idea. A highly publicized and hotly debated trial in 2008 ended with a mother of two small children being sentenced to eighteen months of home confinement.

JFK has been redesigned in the style of the New Urbanist movement. It's like a small town, complete with sidewalks, open-air cafés, trees, and lighting controlled to reflect the passing of time. The loudest noise is conversation between travelers and the occasional crying child. Cell phones were banned in many areas of JFK last year. Gone, too, are the paging systems for passengers. Who needs them when anyone can be found using the RFID wristband system?

An elderly woman is walking toward you wearing some kind of exoskeleton. Oh, that must be one of those bionic suits that help infirm and disabled people get around. You've seen them on the news but never up close. The woman is smiling and moving with apparent ease. Cool.

9:00 a.m. EDT
It's been two hours since you checked in with the office. Flash your wristband at the Office Zone entrance and enter into its more raucous atmosphere. Here, passengers are shouting on cell phones, fingers are flying across typepads, even printers are working. Oh, look: There's someone with a pair of those ridiculous video glasses that were all the rage two years ago.

As you make your way to an empty cubicle, a nine-by-five-foot baby's head appears before you, gurgling and cooing. Whoa! "Sorry about that," says a shame-faced grandfather, who apparently lost control of his 3-D photo gallery.

Take a seat, pull out the scrolling screen from your computing tablet, and unfold the keyboard. Using your fingerprint and a password, you log on to the JFK wireless network. Touch base with Terry. She's in a better mood now, and so is your in-house counsel. The last changes to the contracts are in, approved by Beijing, and waiting at the hotel. The presentation is finished and is waiting on your company's internal wiki.

There are still a few minutes left before your flight boards, so you wander over to the concession kiosk, grab a bottle of water and a bag of trail mix, and swipe your finger across the scanner at checkout. The $12 you owe is automatically debited from your bank account.

10:20 a.m. EDT
Board the plane. As a trusted passenger, you're among the first called and avoid the longer lines. However, this time you are picked for a random iris scan. It's quick and painless, and the guard waves you through.

Take off. Wait the obligatory ten minutes for the airline's network to become available. Swipe your finger over the scanner on the seat back in front of you to access your wireless Internet access account. Run the presentation from your tablet in a one foot = .5-inch scale. There's your booth, in miniature, on your lap. Terry's outdone herself.

You want to call and congratulate her, but an e-mail will have to do. After allowing in-flight cell-phone use in 2007, airlines bowed to consumer outrage and banned cell-phone usage again in 2008. There's talk of re-instituting cell phones on planes when sub-vocalization technology (in which sensors detect soundless speech through nerve and muscle activity in the speaker's neck) becomes widespread, but for now you enjoy the opportunity to chat with your neighbor.

At Your Destination

San Francisco, 12:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT)

After you land, take Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from the airport to the hotel. Your itinerary shows you in room 814. Bypass the check-in desk and go straight to your room: Your fingerprint opens the door and checks you in.

As you enter, the lights and the wall-hanging monitor activate. A general welcome message from your concierge team plays. The screen then changes to a live view of the Golden Gate Bridge. You notice you have one message waiting. Touch the screen to play it.

"Good afternoon. The restaurant you requested had no tables at 8:00. I made a reservation for five at 7:30 p.m. If this time does not work, I have selected three similar restaurants nearby that do have openings at 8:00. You can view video presentations of these restaurants by selecting Play Videos Now from this screen. A listing of your hotel services itinerary follows."

The concierge is replaced by your listing. Good. Taxi arriving at 2:30 to take you to your business meeting. Back at the hotel by 4:30. Exercise class from 5:00 to 5:45, time for a steam, a change of clothes, and at the restaurant by 7:30. Since you have no changes, click OK to approve all. Freshen up and relax.

2:25 p.m. PDT

A recorded courtesy message informs you your taxi will be at the door of your hotel in five minutes.

In the taxi, you review the v-mail you've sent yourself on your tablet. Names and faces of everyone you'll be meeting, plus a brief refresher course of the projects you've worked together on for the past three years. Children's names, pastimes enjoyed, and concerns you've gleaned from your conversations with each. You're armed and ready.

4:40 p.m. PDT
You've dazzled them. Your preparations made doing business a snap. Contracts signed, you even had time to delve into the personal. You've got a date three months from now to see a Yankees game with your new partners. You bought the tickets right from your rented boardroom at the Fairmont Hotel, thanks to San Francisco's free Wi-Fi network.

7:30 p.m. PDT

10:00 p.m. PDT
3-D karaoke in Japantown. Together with your new partners, you raise a glass, then tear into a widely applauded rendition of "Octopus' Garden."

1:30 a.m. PDT
Back at the hotel. Call Terry at home. Tell her yes, you know it's 4:30 a.m., and that she's getting a 25-percent raise.

6:30 a.m. PDT
Your breakfast arrives. Shower (the readout notes that you're dehydrated), dress, and review your express checkout bill on the monitor. Agree to standard billing procedure (American Express corporate account, bill e-mailed to you and Accounting, frequent traveler miles updated), and you're homeward bound.

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