Trial runs of Virtual Reality headsets on planes point to future of entertainment on flights

September 9, 2019 — by Oliver Ye

From providing complimentary blankets to installing screen TVs to providing free Wi-Fi, airline companies are constantly seeking to streamline and enhance the experience of their passengers. With the improvement and increased use of Virtual Reality headsets and apps, airline companies, such as Iberia, Alaska Airlines, Qantas and British Airways, are testing VR headsets as a way to entertain the passengers or ease the discomfort that often comes with flying.

The headsets, designed by Inflight VR, debuted Feb. 18 on Iberia routes between Madrid, New York and Tel Aviv, and enabled viewers to experience two and three-dimensional content in games, films and documentaries.

According to an interview Forbes magazine conducted with Nikolas Jaeger, the founder and managing director of Inflight VR, the virtual reality system that British Airways is testing, the new system has the potential to “change the air passenger experience as a part of the in-flight entertainment program.” 

“The viewer is no longer a mere observer, but can take a stroll in the city he or she will be visiting, or simply relax before arriving at the destination,” said Jaeger 

Similarly, Alaska Airlines paired up with SkyLights, another VR inflight system, to provide the VR trial as a new form of entertainment for its first-class customers. 

In contrast to the focus on entertainment, British Airlines is marketing its VR headsets as calming, explaining that the headsets would come with a “select range of therapeutic programs, including guided meditation and sound therapy specifically designed for customers who have a fear of flying.” 

In addition to being a novel experience for fliers, the VR headsets are also significantly lighter and more energy efficient than seat-back TVs, which may save airlines fuel and energy.

All of this is great, in theory, but in order for VR technology to be successfully implemented on flights, there are a series of daunting hurdles that must be overcome.

For example, airlines must figure out how to store the bulky headsets on the already cramped flights. In addition, since the headsets have a lifespan of approximately 4 hours, utilizing VR may prove to be an impractical plan for  transcontinental flights. Especially given the short battery life of the VR headsets, the problem of charging may be especially challenging. 

In addition, another potential challenge is dealing with broken or faulty headsets. If the staff come across a defective earbud, they can just throw it out and hand the passenger another pair of earbuds. They can’t do this with costly $200 VR headsets. It also means flight attendants must be able to figure out technological problems they’re not trained for.

Another concern that has been voiced by critics is that this use of technology will simply be yet another avenue of isolating social interaction between individuals — upon entering a plane, individuals will simply strap on their headsets and never say a single word.

At first glance, it seems completely impractical to use Virtual Reality on airplanes — it combines the potentially nauseating experience of flying with another nauseating experience that is also bulky, clumsy, jolting everytime the airplane hits a pocket of turbulence. For this reason, SkyLights is currently only offering fixed view movies in 2D and 3D, while they are developing solutions to combat nausea. However, 95 percent of passengers who tried the SkyLights headset said they were satisfied; in fact, over half of testers said they would consider buying a SkyLights device for personal use outside the aircraft.

It seems difficult to imagine a future in which an airplane would be filled with individuals with VR devices strapped to their foreheads; for now, I can only imagine a horde of overexcited children wildly flailing their arms everywhere while attempting to protect their virtual castle from make-believe dragons.

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