Visit the council offices in Brent, north-west London, and you’ll be greeted by a virtual assistant in the form of a hologram.
Going by the name of Shanice, the new receptionist, which has cost the council an estimated £12,000 ($18,500), will offer visitors a friendly smile and (hopefully) answer questions, albeit simple ones pre-programmed into a tablet.
Tap the appropriate request on the display and Shanice, who’s projected onto a thin screen positioned behind the reception desk, will give you directions to the relevant service within the building. However, if you have a question that doesn’t appear on the display, presumably you’ll have to go off in search of a real live person to help get you sorted.
According to Brent councillor James Denselow, Shanice will save the council around £17,000 ($26,500) a year.
“The best thing is it’s going to save us lots of money, without compromising our service,” Denselow told the Evening Standard. “Nowadays we’re constantly having to look at innovative ways to cut costs and they don’t come more cutting edge than Shanice.”
However, opposition councillor Alison Hopkins isn’t entirely happy with the move, calling it a “startlingly expensive” way of dealing with complaints about poor signage around the new £90 million ($141m) civic center, which opened in June.
“As the council admits, Shanice can’t respond even to basic questions but is limited to a small number of pre-recorded scripts,” Hopkins said. “I hope she has been told one of the commonest questions is: ‘Where are the toilets?’”
Critics suggest any savings will probably be spent on maintaining Shanice, with the hologram likely to require reprogramming once its operators learn more about the kinds of questions visitors are asking. And what about the poor worker replaced by Shanice? It can’t be much fun telling family and friends you’ve been replaced by a hologram.
Judging by the demonstration video below, Shanice’s explanations appear, for the most part, clear and concise. Her information regarding the seemingly unusual elevator procedure – where you have to keep your finger on the button the whole time – is certainly without ambiguity.
“To use the lift, please call it by holding the button, and keeping it held until the lift arrives,” Shanice helpfully explains. “Once in the lift, keep the button held until you reach the mezzanine level.”
While such virtual assistants have been seen at some airports reminding passengers of what they can and can’t take on as hand luggage, this is believed to be the first time a hologram has been used by a local council in the UK. And it shouldn’t be too long before we find out if it’s also the last.
[Image: Brent Council]