Will airlines be the best introduction to virtual reality?

ALPS VR – the open source mobile VR SDK
January 15, 2016

wearing-freeflyI am a bit of a fan of flying. In fact, I am verging on being an aviation geek.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some interesting places and still relish the thought of sitting in a giant flying tube speeding across a cushion of air at hundreds of miles an hour.

Despite this, to this day, I have to hide several internal nervous breakdowns when the turbulence hits during take-off; recalling the knowledge I have picked up from the endless “Why turbulence isn’t dangerous” YouTube videos I have watched. It’s an intoxicating mix of excitement, wonder, terror and confusion.

Now talk to me ten minutes later and all those electrifying emotions have been dampened into numbness by the feeling of BOREDOM.

No wonder people (I) turn to drink, and risk the indignity of a cabin member sternly warning “Okay – you can have one more bottle of red but that really is it then” as you squirm my way back to my seat and face the angry eyes of my flying neighbour as I disturb them out of their makeshift bed (again!)

Airline-screen-1It’s why I eat so slowly on a plane. For what is basically a TV dinner 35,000 feet in the air (or 40,000 if you are flying a Dreamliner – told you I was a geek) it feels like an event.

In a similar fashion to a Chinese tea ceremony, I carefully open the wrapped cheese, spread the butter on the bap in slow motion, and make sure the pepper is evenly dispersed.  Each mouthful is carefully considered as once this meal has gone, it’s 8 hours of sheer nothingness ahead.

Even the taste of the food is now being engineered to make one of life’s most simple pleasures more interesting.  The ability to smell and taste can be reduced by up to 30% at high altitude and  our sense of bitterness increases and the subtlety of more delicate flavours can be all but lost.  This has led to British Airways offering altitude friendly meals caled Height Cuisine.

Of course, many people relish the opportunity to switch off for several hours. No emails to reply too. No give-away blue ticks on your WhatsApp messages to pressure you into responding. Staff to wait on you and magazines filled with articles about hidden city gems. Even the sound of the engine is enough to put people into a hypnotic restful sleep.

You can put your feet up (about an inch) and watch hundreds of channels of entertainment including new movie releases.

seat-backThe problem for me as I don’t really like films. Well I like a handful, but airlines don’t tend to show many robot flicks from the 8o’s.

TV is a form of virtual reality. Modern jets feature reasonably large seat back screens these days and when you are absorbed into a story, the peripheral world fades away (until the Duty Free announcement).

But imagine how that escapism could be extended with virtual reality? Where that person you were really hoping wasn’t next to you was no longer in your view.

The world’s oldest airline has been the first to introduce this new form of entertainment. Australia based Quantas is trialling the loan of virtual reality headsets to their first class passengers on selected routes.  Thanks to a partnership with Tourism NT, 360 degree production company Jaunt VR and Samsung, passengers have the chance to tour several city destinations as well as relax in a virtual reality cinema.

Low cost airlines often hand out tablets to circumvent the installation costs of seat-back TVs, so tablet based IFE has been around for sometime, but on long haul flights, passengers expect seat-back TVs and sophisticated entertainment both in terms of UI and choice.

rail-tripBoth offer the pathway to virtual reality experiences. For example, Monarch Airways ask their passengers to download their entertainment app before the plane takes-off.  It would be perfectly feasible to offer VR experiences on the same app.  The newer IFE seat-back systems have USB access, so VR content could be downloaded to passenger’s phones that way.

Offering VR in the sky would make perfect sense, but perhaps as a passive tool rather than any type of gaming.

The physical nature of a HMD shuts ones off from the world outside.  This is appealing in itself, even if it was not switched on! People wear sleep masks for that purpose.  VR content could be an extension to the relaxation process.  In fact, British Airways offer relaxation content on their more modern jets under the banner ‘Paws and Relax’.

Aside from cute cats, there is even a real time 7 hour video from a train driver’s perspective on a route through Norway.  British Airways call it ‘Slow-TV’ and I think VR could be the perfect match for this.

Speaking about the epic length video, which was seen by over 1 million people in Norway on YouTube, BA on-board entertainment manager Richard D’Cruze said, “It fits perfectly with the wallpaper-style footage people find mesmerizing.  There’s a hypnotic, calming and entertaining quality to Slow TV that is perfect for in-flight entertainment.”

Virtual reality relaxation, such as ASMR, could be a big hit for airlines in my opinion.

It would be great if virtual reality could become a new service for every passenger, not just first class cabins.  In the future this could perhaps be integration into the seat in front of you, fitted just like the current controller/remote is.  Such a shift would only happen if there proves to be enough demand.  Another possibility is to offer VR content via the airline’s website.  New content could even be integrated into the airline’s booking app.  USB ports already allow your mobile to be powered and passengers could then use their own VR viewer such as a Freefly VR.

Airlines could turn out to be the best introduction to virtual reality for many people as it is such a controlled environment.

There are no other distractions – you are seated and even have a controller in front of you to select and activate content.  It becomes a differentiator for an airline, and thanks to mobile VR, is an opportunity for airlines to become the managers of new content and keep the communication flow with their clients.

Be careful though!  One a recent flight I was asked what the facehugging device was on my head – not in a curious way, more of a security concern.  Everything was fine once I explained I was touring Iceland, so it might be a while yet before inflight VR is ignored by other passengers.

Whilst I am at it – we need some airline friendly VR apps.  As the plane banked, my view would bank with it, and that engine noise!  If you are going to use a Freefly VR on a plane, make sure you invest in some noise cancellation headphones!

What do you think?  Would you welcome VR on your next flight?

1 Comment

  1. Petter says:

    I am the owner and Co-founder of a VR startup called “Mentour 360” aimed at the aviation industry. I find this article very interesting and I would like to discuss this more with you guys. Feel free to check out my recently release VR app “Mentour 360” and my website http://www.mentour360.com
    Have a great day!

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