Last updated: 10:15 AM ET, Mon March 16 2015

Meet Opal, the Voice-Activated Travel Agent for Booking Flights

Travel Technology | Ryan Rudnansky | March 16, 2015

Meet Opal, the Voice-Activated Travel Agent for Booking Flights

Photo courtesy of OneTravel

Online booking travel site OneTravel recently introduced Opal, a voice-activated travel agent that will interact with travelers and guide them through the flight booking process.

Via the OneTravel Android app, users can search and book flights from more than 450 airlines by talking into their mobile device’s built-in microphone. They can start their search by saying things like, “I need to book a flight from New York to Chicago for next Monday.” Opal will then ask the user follow-up questions for missing information, covering city of departure, destination, departure and return dates and more. Once she has all the information, Opal will begin the search. The user can speak up at any time to change or narrow down the search.

Opal has an advanced travel-specific vocabulary, too, which makes for more seamless and free-flowing communication. For example, you can say “D.C.” and Opal will know you’re talking about Washington D.C. or you can say “New York City” and Opal will instantly know there are three main airports to scan. Opal will also pay attention to specific holidays around your travel dates and find deals that are related to the holiday.

“When you are going through the travel booking experience, it doesn’t give travelers a lot of room to digest and usually there are multiple factors going on through their mind,” said Pradeep Rao, vice president of products and brands for Fareportal, the parent company of OneTravel and CheapOair. “So, they’re balancing all of this and the next thing you are asking users to do is: Based on this set of criteria, use a variety of filters or on-screen widgets to narrow down your set of choices. We wanted to help reduce the mental load of users and make it easier to interact so it becomes more of conversation and you don’t feel the cognitive load of having to juggle all of these different dimensions,” such as prices of fares, dates, preferred airlines, connection times, stop-over cities and possible delays and cancellations during stormy weather.

The idea for Opal came from a regular company-wide exercise that asks its internal developers and employees “to get creative,” Rao said. The exercise, a hackathon, has helped Fareportal be innovative throughout the years. It certainly was influential in this case.

“We realized there wasn’t a voice-based interface specific to travel and travel reservations,” Rao said. “That ties in well with our mission for Fareportal where we work as a hybrid travel agency. The customer can book it online or on the app or they can choose to call our travel agents.”

The results have been impressive so far, too. Rao said that about 59 percent of users are using the microphone to talk with Opal. Of these 59 percent, 95 percent of them end up ultimately landing on the end booking page.

Technology, of course, is propelling the travel industry these days. Rao said that the development of technology is allowing travelers to access more information and narrow down their available choices quicker than before. And that development has certainly paved the way for innovative technology-based offerings like Opal.

Right now, users can only book flights through Opal, but Rao said that users will also be able to book hotels through the voice-activated travel agent in the future.

Rao said that the company is seeking feedback from users to complement their team’s own innovative ideas to make Opal better and better moving forward.


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