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SCIENCE AND TECH

5 MIN

Will Virtual Reality Be the Future of In-flight Entertainment?

Despite airline industry interest in VR, planes might prove to be a tricky environment for the technology

The next time you’re on a plane, look to your left and look to your right: In the future, at least one of these passengers beside you will look like a cyborg, with a virtual-reality headset strapped to their face.

Well, maybe. The timing and certainty of “the future” are always in flux, and virtual reality (VR) has been the “next big thing” in computing for more than 20 years – a time marked by VR growing in fits and starts but never quite taking off. However, boosters have received some lift of late, in part thanks to the recent launch of the much-anticipated Oculus Rift headset, which Facebook bought in 2014.

Uncertainty over VR’s future hasn’t stopped airlines and avionics companies from locking into a virtual arms race, tentatively competing for market share in a nascent industry that is still just learning to walk on its own.

Although the technology has yet to be widely embraced, first iterations of VR and AR on planes are already happening.

Last year, Australian airline Qantas debuted a VR experiment in which it provided Samsung headsets to select passengers in a small handful of airport lounges and in the first-class cabin on some trans-Pacific flights. About six months later, Qantas released a VR film on the Great Barrier Reef as a continuation of its VR experiment.

And at SXSW in Austin this year, German airliner Lufthansa planted its stake in the ground by handing out Google Cardboards – a smartphone-compatible VR device – to allow conference attendees to board a virtual flight proving that, if nothing else, VR could be a compelling sales tool.

Joerg Liebe is the chief information officer at Lufthansa Systems, an independent technology company spun off from Lufthansa that services the IT needs of more than 300 airlines. Liebe says integrating VR capabilities into its wireless inflight entertainment system, BoardConnect, is on the company’s product roadmap.

With that in mind, now it’s up to the client airlines themselves to determine if and how they want to offer VR, Liebe says. There are different ways this could play out: Headsets could be part of the installed entertainment system, or they could be an add-on option for a fee, or the airline could simply offer VR content to be viewed through devices that passengers bring onboard themselves.

Beyond entertainment and sales, VR has real-world usefulness. For example, it can be used to train crews, mechanics and other workers. “The immersiveness of virtual reality is going to enhance the training and knowledge-transfer process tremendously,” Liebe says.

Elsewhere, Aero Glass makes a pair of AR glasses for pilots to better visualize terrain, while Vital Enterprises’ Smart Glasses allow flight crews to confer with a telepresent doctor while treating a passenger with a medical emergency. Virtual reality could also be used to show people how to navigate other emergency situations, such as water landings.

Hyperbole vs. reality

As a medium, VR has a long history of falling short of expectations. In 1991, Computer Gaming World magazine predicted the world would have affordable VR by 1994. The failure to make this a true reality was rooted in prohibitive costs and hyperbolic estimations of the market for such a technology.

More recently, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took a US$2-billion gamble on virtual reality in 2014 by buying Oculus, he qualified his decision by saying he believed billions of people would eventually adopt “immersive, augmented reality” into their daily lives.

“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time. “But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.”

Yet perhaps due to its sometimes disappointing history, even people working directly with VR can be hesitant to play it up. Product research manager Steve Sizelove is the emerging tech trends guy at Panasonic Avionics, the arm of the electronics giant that outfits planes with inflight entertainment and communications systems. Sizelove anticipates it will be at least three years before virtual reality (VR) makes it onto planes in earnest, and even then he sees it as a product that appeals to only a niche market.

“[Samsung’s] Gear VR can be purchased at Best Buy. How many do you see on an airplane right now?” he asks.

One of the big obstacles to widespread VR adoption is people worrying about looking silly while wearing the devices. Sizelove points to the backlash against Google Glass, a head-mounted ubiquitous computer first released to the public in 2014. Google Glass inspired not only reams of editorials on privacy, but also outright mockery of the people who wore them. “They called them ‘glassholes,’ ” Sizelove says.

The sting of that mockery – however well-deserved it may have been at the time – pervades the virtual and augmented reality (AR) markets today. (Augmented reality differs from VR in that it typically overlays supplemental imagery on top of a live, real-world environment, while VR is usually a fully immersive video experience.)

That said, Sizelove predicts we’ll start seeing more VR and AR headsets on planes when the public becomes more socially permissive of these devices. He cautiously pegs that shift happening in between five to seven years – if certain obstacles can be overcome.

Health and safety

For airlines, it will be difficult to try to figure out whether passengers would even use VR consistently enough to make it a worthwhile expenditure in the first place. Managing the health and safety concerns related to VR is a whole other bucket of airplane peanuts.

First, there are the hygiene concerns about passengers sharing airline-owned devices. Inflight internet provider Gogo Air last year released a white paper on the feasibility of head-mounted VR devices on planes. “Users … will often experience increased heat [and sweating] from wearing the unit, and some products feature a fabric mounting support,” the report reads. “Cleaning this will prove problematic without spare parts.”

Beyond hygiene, there are other, more important factors to consider before diving into VR headfirst, says Gregg Launer, the founder and CEO of SkyTheater, a company that outfits private and corporate jets with high-end entertainment and sound systems, including its proprietary ultra-realistic “virtual reality” sound.

VR can induce disorientation, nausea and possible vertigo while a person is still on terra firma (let alone) at a high altitude

Launer, who is also a pilot and flight instructor, points out that VR can induce disorientation, nausea and possible vertigo while a person is still on terra firma. In his opinion, introducing those side effects at a high altitude — combined with G forces, dips, climbs, turns and turbulence — could be a recipe for disaster.

Then there’s the concern that VR devices are so immersive that in the event of an emergency situation onboard a plane, passengers could be put at significantly higher risks. “There’s an emergency that just happened on the aircraft and because you’re buried in this, you have no reference to what’s going on in the aircraft,” Launer says.

Launer isn’t the first person to raise these concerns.

Sizelove of Panasonic Avionics says motion sickness, how to integrate PA system interruptions into the VR experience and device hygiene maintenance are all pervasive problems that need to be addressed before VR can be widely adopted by the airline industry. And whether it’s financially worth it for airlines to invest in resolving these issues remains to be seen: According to a survey commissioned by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), more than 70% of global airline passengers still prefer seatback screens to all over forms of inflight entertainment, including using their own devices.

Courtesy Qantas

"Now if I can just avoid symptoms of nausea and vertigo, this should be relaxing and enjoyable!"

Even so, at the annual APEX Expo industry conference, Panasonic Avionics’ cool room – a showcase of emerging technologies that in past editions has let people try out unique VR experiences – is a fan favourite. In a recent edition, Sizelove says, they used HTC’s Vive headset to create an immersive pirate-ship experience. “I thought it was really cool,” he says.

“Most people love the experience,” Sizelove continues. However, to host VR in every single one of a flight's seats would take heavy, expensive computers – typically things airlines shy away from. "I think people see the setup that's required and have a hard time believing in it.”

Published Thursday, May 5th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Qantas

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