Virtual reality is not a solution to next generation in-flight entertainment – or at least it isn’t right now. I should know: I developed one of the first pilot tests of the technology in partnership with United Airlines in 2017. That experiment, while a success, illuminated many of the technical, business and sociological hurdles on the road to bringing head mounted displays into airplane cabins. And to be frank, there are many.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to incorporating VR entertainment into an airplane cabin is the experience around pushing the content to users. Currently, many carriers offer streaming entertainment through Wi-Fi connectivity, which gives customers access to big box features, TV shows and the occasional live feed. But each of those platforms comes with a custom app or custom software on a custom webpage. To access that content, VR users first need an integrated computing platform to connect to the Wi-Fi and then load the content and display it onboard the headset.
Many VR headsets or other head mounted displays haven’t got that computing power integrated – they’re simply a display looking for an input – so a third-party piece of hardware needs to be injected into the stream for content navigation and selection. In the United trial above, touchscreen Apple iPods were used to load the airline’s app and select content. Once the content was streaming, an HDMI adapter was plugged into the iPod and then connected to the headset. Many passengers just chose to watch the content through the iPod.
Irrespective of the hardware source, it’s also important that passengers have a tool with which to navigate through content. Traditionally, that’s handled through an on-screen control menu or tethered, handheld device. But VR users can neither touch their screens nor see an accessory to navigate content, presenting an immediate challenge.
Some headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Go come with a wireless, handheld tool for navigating content. This solves the problem of browsing through a virtual environment, but may require some training for passengers unfamiliar with head mounted display interfaces. Additionally, once a user puts down the navigation wand – especially on a turbulent aircraft – it can be difficult to find.
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Combined, most of these technical hurdles make VR technology a difficult sale for many customers who simply want to stare at their phones or examine their cuticles, waiting for the flight to conclude.
From an air carrier’s perspective, the hurdles also present liabilities – particularly at scale. For legacy U.S. carriers, the best comparison to using and deploying VR headsets on an ad-hoc basis is in headphone distribution for premium customers. Flying internationally from Chicago to London, for example, passengers on American Airlines are allocated noise cancelling headsets for use during the flight. Crews deploy the headsets right after takeoff, note the passenger’s information and then collect the hardware prior to landing.
Projecting this process to cart full of VR headsets increases the complication by an order of magnitude. Crews now need to distribute a headset and a control module (ensuring that they’re properly paired first) and in many cases, a piece of hardware that streams or holds all of the content. Training may also be necessary, which requires at least one member of the crew to be savvy with the technology.
Once distributed, crews need to contend with providing service to a passenger who is effectively blind and deaf. Using the noise-cancelling headphone example, it’s easy to get around this crutch by waving at a passenger or obstructing the seatback screen. In VR, however, an entire flight could go by without a passenger noticing. That creates another major liability in the event of an in-flight emergency or another passenger (perhaps in the window seat) needs to get around the VR user’s space. The FAA has yet to issue direction on whether VR headsets are safe for use in flight.
Airlines also have to contend with the financial liability. In the case of a pair of headphones, which only costs the carrier maybe $20 – $40 per unit, it’s acceptable to occasionally lose or break something. VR headsets, which can cost up to $500, increase that liability. And depending on how many aircraft receive the hardware (American Airlines has over 150 widebody aicraft in its fleet), the cost of stocking each galley can be enormous.
To offset those costs, one approach may be to offer headsets on a subscription or rental basis (throughout the early 2000s, Alaska Airlines successfully used this model to rent movie players to passengers). Where this approach may find trouble is in the high cost of procuring and maintaining VR headsets; for the profit earned off of each rental, many carriers may find carrying a rack of headsets on each flight hard to justify against the weight and space added to each flight
To properly bring VR headsets onto an aircraft, airlines will need to carefully balance the reams of liabilities against the benefit to the passenger experience and marketing value. And remarkably, a few use cases have still come to light.
Some carriers and companies have attempted to make virtual reality into a premium-only experience. In 2015, Qantas launched a three month pilot with Samsung and its Gear VR to offer premium international passengers inflight headsets (since then it’s scaled back its VR strategy to only offer destination-based content for potential customers). Alaska Airlines kicked off its own program for first class customers on ten flights late in 2018.
That approach is challenged, however, by the current premium experience already offered by these carriers. For international travelers, a big attraction to flying in business or first class is cavernous seats, premium service and massive televisions. By donning a VR headset, premium passengers effectively get the same experience as an economy passenger could, which negates the whole purpose of buying an expensive seat.
To have any chance at making VR go mainstream, it’s important that carriers include the economy cabin in any experimentation or deployment. Once that hurdle has been crossed though, passengers will face one last barrier: each other. Already, many in the tech community have faced backlash and ridicule for wearing VR headsets in public. On an aircraft, where it seems that no degree of immodesty is out of place, those tensions may be eased. But until the time comes when a passenger – man, woman, black, white, Christian or Muslim – can put on a headset in public and not feel self-conscious, VR headsets will have trouble taking off in flight.