Will we ever see VR entertainment on flights?

In-flight entertainment has been a way for airlines to attract customers and differentiate themselves for many years. The upper screens moved to the seat back displays. Fixed channels have become huge libraries. And WiFi and passenger devices have been integrated by many airlines. As airlines look to the future, could immersive virtual reality be the next addition?

VR headsets could be the next evolution in in-flight entertainment. Photo: British Airways

Presentation of virtual reality to aviation

Virtual reality (VR) has improved dramatically in recent years. Initially viewed more as a gaming tool, more and more apps have emerged as technology improves and the cost drops.

The aviation industry has seen applications in the training of pilots and cabin crews and, more recently, for passengers. In fact, British Airways mentions that the expansion of passenger use has come from realizing its potential in crew use.

There are benefits for passengers and airlines. Passengers can be much more engaged in entertainment than on a television screen, thus helping to “escape” the cabin environment for a period of time. Maybe they can visit their destination or relax on the beach instead of their seat!

Airlines will benefit from this customer satisfaction, but neither have they missed the opportunity to use closer engagement for marketing and sales purposes as well. And economically, if helmets take off and replace current entertainment systems, airlines will reduce weight and save fuel – an increasingly important criterion.

ANA uses virtual reality to demonstrate its new 777 cabins Photo: Getty Images

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Tests with several airlines

We are already seeing VR on flights, but so far mostly in limited use. Many airlines have conducted trials to establish both the popularity and technical feasibility of VR. Some have also introduced VR headsets in the field and in lounges.

German company Inflight VR and French-American company SkyLights are two of the main technology providers in the region. The two are engaged in a number of trials with airlines, including:

  • Alaska Airlines has tested SkyLights technology with first-class passengers on selected routes (according to The Economist, it was the first airline in the United States to do so).
  • Qatar Airways has tested Inflight VR business class service on flights to London and Singapore.
  • Iberia carried out a similar test on routes to New York, Miami and Tel Aviv, at an additional cost for economy and business class. This is reported to extend to some full business cabins.
  • And British Airways has tested SkyLight’s helmets in first class on flights to New York. He also presented them as part of an exhibition in London on the future of aviation.
BA VR headsets
British Airways has tested VR headsets both on the ground and in the air. Photo: British Airways

Switch to full service

For now, it is not yet fully used by airlines, but such tests show that there is certainly an interest. The evolution of in-flight entertainment and offering the best has long been a major way for airlines to differentiate themselves and sell to their customers. Virgin Atlantic did this as the first airline to offer personal in-flight entertainment (although the screens were only four inches square). Emirates was not far behind.

There are several challenges to overcome, which are undoubtedly part of what airline tests address. It’s fair to say that most passengers aren’t used to using VR headsets – so will they want to do it in a closed aircraft cabin? Will they be comfortable enough for prolonged use? And what about the increased importance of hygiene and sterilization? Another consideration is the potential effects of motion sickness.

What about the content?

It’s one thing to introduce VR technology, but to make it work, airlines will need to deliver the content that passengers want. Early trials have been limited in this regard. For example, British Airways has had a few short episodes for children and documentaries and mindfulness experiences for adults. He also showed a selection of his normal films.

Of course, more content will be developed as headset usage grows. Movies and shows are an obvious choice. But offering glimpses of destinations is another option (Qantas has done this with headsets in lounges, sponsored by tourism suppliers). And of course, better cabin experiences can be both relaxing and good marketing.

BA VR Club World
BA VR offers a VR view from its Club World cabin. Photo: British Airways

What do you think of in-flight VR? Will this be the next evolution in entertainment or won’t it work in the cabin environment? Let us know what you think, or if you’ve tried it, in the comments.

About William Moorhead

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