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Technology

ANA invests in tech for virtual vacations and doctor visits

Airline spins off avatar venture as it weathers travel slump

Avatars enable users to go on virtual shopping and sightseeing trips. (Photo by Masashi Isawa)

TOKYO -- The parent of Japan's All Nippon Airways has backed a startup launched by its own employees to further develop remotely controlled avatars that can be used in tourism, retail and health care.

ANA Holdings and the two employees will invest a total of 200 million yen ($1.8 million) into the startup, called Avatar-in, though the size of the stake is undisclosed. 

Fishing and skindiving for shellfish are two of the experiences that ANA has already tested with its avatars. The new startup will seek to raise funds broadly, as well as to accelerate development and partnerships.

The move comes as All Nippon Airways said Tuesday that it will furlough nearly half its workforce on a rotating basis as the coronavirus pandemic sinks international passenger traffic. Remote access to health care and other services has taken on new urgency during the pandemic.

Avatars let people interact through a video monitor from a remote location. ANA has deployed the machines, dubbed "newme," on a trial basis in shopping centers and tourist attractions, enabling users to go on virtual shopping and sightseeing trips. The startup also develops robotic avatars capable of delivering remote medicine.

Two of ANA's digital business executives will lead the startup. Akira Fukabori serves as president, while Kevin Kajitani is the chief operating officer. Both are also investors in the new company.

The startup was formed to raise funds from a wide variety of sources, as well as to accelerate development and partnerships.

As countries continue to close borders to try to stop the pandemic, airlines have taken a massive hit. ANA is looking to borrow 100 billion yen to cover expenses. 

To deal with the shortfall in demand, All Nippon Airways will cut hours for roughly 6,400 cabin crew members for up to a year starting April. Each affected worker will be furloughed between 3 and 5 days each month.

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