How robots, VR and Li-Fi are transforming the public transport customer experience

Commuters are the reason why public transport systems exist. How, then, can the station of the future make their experience better and encourage higher patronage?

Many advanced, data-driven technologies are already at work in transit systems around the world. Real-time service updates, contactless ticketing and more are making the customer experience increasingly frictionless. Further transforming the customer experience is critical to restoring ridership around the globe. This restoration will require seamless integration of end-to-end services to assist and inform customers at every stage of their journey.

Four technologies stand out as offering unique benefits to customers and operators alike: robots, digital displays, integrated advertising and virtual reality.

Safety, security and customer service robots

Software robots, such as customer service chatbots, as well as the ‘bots’ used in robotic process automation (RPA), have been helping customers for years. More recently, transit operators have begun deploying their physical counterparts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) deployed a Vapourised Hydrogen Peroxide Robot to deep-clean and decontaminate train compartments and stations. These cleanings – in one of the world’s busiest public transport systems – have been highly effective at maintaining public trust in the system’s safety. To date, no coronavirus cases in Hong Kong have been traced to contacts on the MTR.

The robots’ use cases could be extended using internet of things (IoT) sensors, Wi-Fi and 5G for more precise control over more delicate tasks. Human safety can also be enhanced. With cameras, robotic arms and rough-terrain capabilities, robots could be deployed quickly into hazardous environments such as confined spaces.

Finally, these cleaning robots could become multi-functional. Combined cleaning and customer experience robots could roam their networks, assisting passengers and maintaining hygiene as they go.

Digital displays and lighting

There are two important innovations in the lighting space: Li-Fi and naked-eye 3D.

Li-Fi is light fidelity – data transmission that uses light, not radio waves. Its key advantages include its low-cost, high-data transmission rate (up to 224 Gbps), enormous spectrum bandwidth (around 10,000 times that of the radio spectrum) and freedom from electromagnetic hazards and interactions. Li-Fi emitters can also provide lighting as their data pulses are imperceptible to human vision.

Potential uses include transmitting in-train video cameras’ footage in seconds as they pass by a base station, or deploying mobile apps that connect to IoT devices fitted with a light sensor for fast, high-speed connectivity to timetable updates and other services.

Naked-eye 3D uses displays that do not require viewers to wear special glasses. These displays could show passengers 3D models of trains and stations, provide more accurate directions and travel guides, and make information more easily accessible.

Many transit operators are already using digital displays to provide real-time service information. This information could include 3D images showing escalators, ticketing gates, alternative services and the quickest ways to enter or exit the station.

Transparent OLED displays can be fitted to carriage windows, providing real-time schedule updates and other information, such as weather, news, transfers and announcements. Digital displays can be further augmented with cameras or biometric sensors to identify passengers and passers-by. The information gathered can then be used to tailor services to individual travellers, such as identifying an elderly passenger and helping them navigate a station or board a train.

Smart, integrated advertising ecosystems

Rail networks offer advertisers a captive audience – but we know that traditional ‘push’ advertising is becoming less and less effective. Enhancing the offer with an intelligent advertising ecosystem can help reverse that trend. Allowing users to opt-in to personalised services can transform how advertisers communicate with their markets and offer operators a meaningful revenue stream.

Smart displays and biometrics sensors could identify passengers travelling to a sporting event, for example. Depending on the team colours the system detects, it can send different offers. Special promotions can use near-field communications (NFC) or QR codes to drive further customer engagement.

With AI and deep learning, such systems can understand a user’s ‘digital footprint’. This footprint includes gender, age group, hobbies and topics of interest, travel patterns, preferences and more. With connections to other service providers, smart systems can combine data to automatically generate relevant offers. Travellers could be reminded to collect their dry cleaning, incentivised to buy electrolyte drinks after visiting the gym or have a ride car arranged to meet them when they exit a station.

Virtual help and information kiosks

Queuing for service at an information counter is a frustrating experience. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies make it possible for passengers to receive information anywhere, anytime without queuing.

Managed by AI and a centralised team, information kiosks can optimise team resources and improve the customer experience. Simply downloading an app to a mobile device (or, in future, to smart glasses or contact lenses) would enable passengers to receive tailored information.

AR can offer real-time directions to help guide passengers to their desired location (gate, platform, shop or service). It can also guide passengers to their next train’s exact stopping location so they can pre-gather in the proper position, speeding up the boarding process.

VR, in combination with an AI agent, can provide all services currently available at an information counter. Enquiry for information, ticket booking, payment and refund are all feasible via an AI agent on a passenger’s device.

All these technologies – and more – are ready to transform the customer experience in public transport systems today. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more critical to reassure commuters that public transport is safe, convenient and secure. There can be little doubt that the economic recovery from the pandemic will be customer experience led.

What is the station of the future?

By partnering with BAI Communications, transit authorities can become the catalyst for creating connected cities; enabling connectivity and economic growth through the provision of a high-capacity, high-availability, multi-use communications network.

Take a walk through our ‘station of the future,’ and see how the support of IoT and data-driven solutions can further benefit the passenger experience, strengthen your operational capability, and help you prepare for the introduction of 5G.