Carnegie Mellon University

School of Design

PIA: A Connected Airport

written by
Joe Lyons & Pamela Wigley

A team of Carnegie Mellon University School of Design master’s students has won the 2023 iF Design Award for creating a program that provides all-in-one-voice assistance at airports. The honor follows two other awards in recognition of their work. Master’s students Weijie Wang (MDes ‘23), Devika Pillai (MPS ‘22), Matt Muenzer (MPS ‘22), and Youngryun Cho (MDes ‘23), won the Gold Award at the HCII 2022 Conference for their team project, called “PIA.” Only one project from the conference receives a Gold Award. Days after this announcement, their work also received the Notable Interaction Award from Core 77.

PIA, short for “PIA - Intelligent Voice Assistant for Pittsburgh Airport,” proposes an AI-driven digital assistant to ease the airport experience as a mobile app, through kiosks and voice user interface (VUI). The latter allows people to interact with computers, smart phones and other devices using just their voice (think Siri or Alexa). So, for people who have various questions or concerns about airport travel, PIA is a one-stop solution.

Pillai and Muentzer in Pittsburgh Airport.

“We all know that flying commercially can end up being a total mess, and have all been in a position where we felt helpless,” explains Weijie Wang, a member of the design team. “From late or canceled flights, missed connections, long lines, crowded terminals, and unappealing food, the current traveler experience can be complicated and disconnected.”

The team didn’t want their design to be confined to the airport itself, though. The design covers the holistic commercial flying experience, including travel timing to and from the airport, multilingual assistance, intelligent flight updates, and more. The team drew from research at the Pittsburgh International Airport, as well as familiar experiences dealing with travel logistics.

“We visited the Pittsburgh Airport during our initial research phase, but also could draw upon a rich stock of pain points and insights that people had all throughout the journey — before the airport, at the airport, and after leaving the airport. We saw a massive opportunity for design intervention in the space and were eager to dig into it.”

Devika Pillai

PIA helps to solve the disjoint between airports and individual airlines. “Airlines cover booking, check-in, boarding, and (importantly) the flight, but airports are the go-to party (or should be) for securing parking during your trip, finding dining and shopping before your flight, finding a way into town after landing in a new city, and so much more. PIA’s connected assistance can fill in those gaps and elevate previously underwhelming or invisible services,” said Matt Muenzer.

To account for the rushed nature of travel, PIA utilizes AI-driven voice assistance as a key aspect of its design. Plus, team members recognized that PIA could be incorporated into existing airport features, such as assistive kiosks. “PIA’s mobile app provides both touch and voice-led interfaces for travelers on the move, and this system also activates underused check-in kiosks, such as those we found distributed throughout the Pittsburgh airport.”

Tackling travel issues through design thinking came naturally to the team, as explained by Youngryun Cho.

“With how many logistical and economic factors are at play in air travel, it’s not surprising that a huge disconnect emerges between service providers and customers. Design tools and skills we used on this project helped us step into a perspective from which we could start to see novel and mutually beneficial solutions in the space, even though we started as total outsiders.”

Youngryun Cho

Although there’s no current plan for the future of PIA, the group is hopeful that it will have an impact on travel systems and how we consider the whole airport experience.

“We’re extremely proud of our students for their work,” said Interim Head of the School of Design, Eric Anderson. “This kind of forward-thinking, innovative work is a prime example of how our current students and alumni are making a difference in our world.”