CrowsNest XR’s virtual concierge Anna is the future of hospitality

[As this story from The Ghost Howls blog explains, CrowsNest XR’s Anna is a multi-lingual, always-available digital concierge for hotels in China. While ‘she’ currently has to be triggered by a QR code and answers predetermined questions from a screen menu, the company and partner Amazon China have big plans to expand the service to evoke greater presence – she already can appear in augmented reality and will be able to interact conversationally and in other ways become more of a human companion for tourists and other guests. See the original story for three more images and three videos. –Matthew]

CrowsNest’s Anna is the future of hospitality

By Tony Skarredghost
December 22, 2020

Some days ago I had a chat with my friend Eloi Gerard, the CEO of CrowsNest XR, about Anna, the virtual concierge assistant he is launching. I found it a very interesting project, so let me tell to you about it!

CrowsNest XR is a startup in Shanghai and when Covid hit China the previous Winter, Eloi decided to fly to Thailand to avoid the imminent lockdown and do some business development abroad. While he was there, he noticed that some Chinese tourists arrived at his hotel in Bangkok, but many of them had problems with the language since they couldn’t speak English well. “Many of them just wanted to know the usual things, like how to do the check-in, where to find the restaurant, etc… but there were big communications problems and the hotel staff had problems with coping with all of them,” Eloi told me. “So I had an idea: what if there was a virtual assistant that speaks all languages and that can help them with the most common problems?”. And so Anna was born.

Anna is a digital concierge operator that can help all the hosts of the hotels adopting it. The customers will find a QR code in the hall of the Hotel and one in their room. Scanning the QR Code (QR Codes are ultra-popular in Asia, so people will have no problems in scanning them), the user will be taken to the web page of Anna, where they can see the 3D avatar of Anna and a menu with some things they can ask to her. “People do not want to install apps,” said Eloi “and we didn’t want to create friction, so we thought that a web approach was the best”. To make a similar experience all available on the Web, CrowsNest has used the powerful XR engine Amazon Sumerian, which provides out of the box intelligent avatars, support for AR and VR, and communication APIs (the ones used by Alexa). Amazon China is a partner of the project and really believes in it.

Once Anna shows on your screen, she starts introducing herself, telling her story of a French Student who arrived in China, and then waits for your instructions. On the bottom of the screen, there are some categories of questions you can make her (like something about your room, about your hotel, or about the city you are in) and if you select a category, you can see all the questions you can ask her about that category (e.g. if you choose “room”, you can ask her what is the password of your Wi-Fi, or how to turn on the AC, where is the air dryer, etc…). The questions that CrowsNest has selected are all the most typical ones, the ones for which all customers of a Hotel always want an answer. And when you tap the button related to the topic you want to know more about, Anna is always there ready to kindly answer you with all the needed details.

“Anna is the future of hospitality” according to my friend. “She can give everyone the basic information he/she needs and can do it in his/her language. Currently, Anna speaks English, Chinese, and Japanese, but we are working to make her talk in many other languages. This is of great advantage for the hotel, that has not to hire more people to just do the dull tasks of introducing the rooms to every new customer and of answering always the same questions. This means money and time saved for them. And for the customers, this means better service, because they can ask Anna all the questions they want, how many times they want, and always have the answers in their native language”.

I asked Eloi if exploiting Amazon services, Anna could have a natural conversation with the customers. I mean, why the application has still a menu when Anna could be a conversational human? The answer I got is that this way it is easier for the customer to understand what can and what can not be asked to Anna, avoiding the scenario where the customer starts asking some questions and it becomes disappointed when she can’t answer them. Of course, the plan for the future is to make her “more human”, but for now the software will stick to this simpler layout.

The possible questions and the related answers are inserted by the hotel owners through a very simple web portal, where they have just to write down the sentences. Everyone can operate it without having much technical knowledge, and then AWS services will create the magic of Anna speaking to you.

Anna works completely in the browser, and in 2D mode can be accessed by all phones, on all browsers, including the one of WeChat, which is one of the most used in China. But if you use her inside Google Chrome on Android or the WebXR Viewer on iPhone, you can trigger also an AR mode. If you click that button, you can position Anna inside your space, and have a more natural relationship with her, since you see her in the room with you, exactly as it happens with a real hostess.

The AR mode may seem a gimmick to some, but CrowsNest has big plans for it: if and when there will be spatial understanding embedded into the WebXR standard, Anna could recognize the layout of the room of the hotel and could guide the customers in finding some items like the Hair Dryer or the remote control of the TV. This could make Anna even more helpful than it is now.

Anna is not just a concept: this product has been validated by 4 months of a pilot at the Golden Tulip hotel close to the Hongqiao Shanghai Airport. “The General Manager of the Hotel is very happy about Anna. Shanghai is full of Westerners, and Anna can help both the Chinese and the Western people in using the Hotel, freeing the staff from the boring introductory procedure”. Now CrowsNest is in talks with many other hotels to implement it. Being a solution that makes Hotels spare money while at the same time offering a better service, Anna is that kind of XR products that can help many businesses.

Eloi and his team are adding many new features to Anna, and they have noticed that the more features they add, the more people stay inside the application. The more Anna is being useful, the more people spend time with her, proving the fact that she is actually valuable to them.

I’ve heard that the main competitors of Anna are automated chatbots. Personally, I think that the fact that Anna is a person with a face, a voice, and a story makes her more interesting than them, from a future perspective. Humans love interacting with other humans, and they can create a connection with a digital avatar with a gentle voice, but they can’t create a connection with a cold text message generator. This can make a huge difference.

We are in a time where it is common for people to start integrating digital beings into their life. Many people talk every day with Alexa, and many teenagers are fans of digital idols like Hatsune Miku or Lil Miquela. It is not strange anymore to deal with a completely virtual being, so it doesn’t sound weird to me that a virtual human could welcome me inside a hotel. Probably I would also prefer her at this moment, at first because due to the Covid, it is better to have contact with the least people possible; and then because I could ask her many questions about the hotel and the city I am in without worrying about annoying her. If Anna could also become a bit more human, she could also be a nice companion with which I could chat while I am alone in my room.

And the future possibilities are endless: every Hotel Chain could have its digital assistant, that recognizes you wherever you go, and that becomes your digital friend that reminds all your preferences in all the rooms you go in, for instance. Anna could help with the check-in, and also translate what you are saying to the human waiters in real-time. She could stay with you while you watch the local TV, and advise you what to watch. She could guide you to a museum. Imagine how she could be even more helpful in the future where we will all wear glasses: you could interact with her in a fully natural way, without even having to look at your smartphone screen.

Of course, these are all future projections, and years will be needed to implement them. For now, Anna is already useful like she is and I’m sure the project will be implemented by various hotels in China. If you are interested to know more about it, you can go to CrowsNest’s website or you can ask me for an introduction to Eloi. Personally, I can’t wait to go back to China and find Anna helping me in a hotel.

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