If you’re reading this, you’ll most probably know that I write about in-flight connectivity and entertainment (IFEC) quite a lot in my role at Valour Consultancy. You might not know I also lend my expertise to a number of other research organisations and have covered everything from smart home technology, home energy management and the wider Internet of Things (IoT), to connected lighting, augmented reality (AR) and more recently, virtual reality (VR). A jack of all trades if you will (and master of them all!). Recently, it’s struck me just how much IFEC and virtual reality are intersecting and that pretty soon, we may well find that the next time we fly, it might not be the screen in front or your phone you’re staring at to while away the hours, but a head-mounted display (HMD) instead.
This was rammed home at last week’s AP&M Expo in London. There, Rewind FX, a boutique visual arts studio, was showing off an interactive flight experience it had been commissioned to design for the Red Bull Air Race. Curious, I donned the Oculus Rift DK2 HMD, chose my destination (the Austrian Alps) and prepared for take-off. Having played around with more simplistic virtual reality headsets like Google Cardboard and the Durovis Dive in the past, I admit to being taken aback by the motion sickness the Rift induced. While the display was somewhat pixelated and didn’t therefore give me a real sense of immersion, I found myself unwittingly moving my head from side-to-side in sync with the plane as it banked. I felt better upon learning that my colleague, Joshua Flood, and a couple of other chaps who’d flown their own virtual aircraft were similarly disorientated afterwards.
Rewind’s Marketing Director, David Black, informed me that his company had been approached by several airlines interested in developing their own virtual reality experiences. Presumably, these would be somewhat different to the Red Bull Air Race simulator, which has been designed to be exhilarating and to hook people into the brand when deployed at exhibitions. Airlines, on the other hand, are looking for calmer experiences that can augment their existing IFE proposition. That said, the fact the Rift is tethered to a PC makes it unsuitable for use on a plane. The fact the Rift is tethered to a PC and is seemingly unsuitable for use on a plane has not stopped Transavia from trialling the DK2. In fact, the Dutch low-cost carrier reported a “very positive” reaction from passengers and is planning further trials. Qantas, of course, deployed the Samsung Gear VR headset in select A380 first class cabins in a trial test of this burgeoning entertainment medium earlier this year. Available in two versions (one utilising the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the other, the S6 and S6 Edge), the Gear virtual reality uses the same tracking module as the Rift but being a mobile device, is not constrained by cabling linked to a bulky computer.
But, if a virtual reality experience can induce nausea this easily, wouldn’t the problem be exacerbated at 30,000 feet – an environment where some people just feel sick anyway? Not so according to Flow IFE, a British company making the headlines with a virtual reality solution it claims can actually alleviate air sickness among sufferers. The company is working on introducing a virtual reality HMD that essentially tricks the wearer’s eyes and brain by presenting a false horizon that mimics the movement of the aircraft. That way, what the brain feels and what your eyes tell your brain become the same thing. Of course, this is not quite the same as the virtual aerobatic plane that slalomed its way through so-called air gates as quickly as possible that I piloted in the Olympia.
Despite its effectiveness, it is expected there will be only a limited market for Flow IFE’s virtual reality device, with just one per cent of air travellers affected by air sickness. As a result, the company, which is also seeking to crack into the increasingly crowded wireless IFE (W-IFE) space, has other uses for its product. Notifications from the crew can be displayed on screen to help keep passengers informed, while it can also be used to watch movies, play games or showcase the sights and delights of destinations, too. It’s these uses and the potential for passengers to tune out from the unpleasantness of air travel which Qantas and others have front of mind when looking to introduce virtual reality into the IFE experience.
Gogo, the leading provider of in-flight connectivity with over 2,200 aircraft online at the time of writing, has been watching the confluence of IFEC and virtual reality closely, having tested many of the current generation devices, as well as their usability for in-flight entertainment. In a whitepaper looking at this subject, the company concluded that in-flight use of HMDs is here to stay, although it did highlight that many of today’s products come with trade-offs that could make for a negative passenger experience. Even so, issues such as poor battery life, complicated controls and discomfort for the wearer should all be overcome by growing use and awareness of the technology and an increase in the number of consumer ready products. It is easy to forget that the Rift, for example, is still a developer kit and that a final version will not come to market until 2016.
It’s hard to disagree with Gogo’s findings and this year and next, we’ll likely hear much more about the growing role of virtual reality in IFE. Whether we’ll end up looking like the guy depicted in a patent application for a funky-looking virtual reality isolation helmet filed by Airbus last year, is another thing.