Will We Ever See VR Entertainment On Flights?

Onboard entertainment is one way airlines have attracted customers and differentiated themselves for many years. Overhead screens moved to seat-back displays. Fixed channels became extensive libraries. And WiFi and passengers’ own devices have been incorporated by many airlines. As airlines look ahead, could immersive VR be the next addition?

BA VR headsets
VR headsets could be the next evolution for inflight entertainment. Photo: British Airways

Introducing VR to aviation

Virtual Reality (VR) has improved significantly in recent years. Initially viewed more as a gaming tool, more applications have emerged as the technology improves and the cost reduces.

The aviation industry has seen application in pilot and cabin crew training and, more recently, for passengers. In fact, British Airways cite that the expansion to passenger use came from realizing its potential during crew use.

There are benefits for both passengers and airlines. Passengers can be much more engaged in entertainment than on a TV screen, helping to ‘escape’ the cabin environment for some time. Perhaps they can visit their destination, or ‘relax’ on the beach instead of their seat!

Airlines will benefit from this customer satisfaction but also have not missed the opportunity to use the closer engagement for marketing and sales purposes too. And economically, if headsets take off and replace current entertainment systems, airlines will reduce weight and save fuel – an ever-important criteria.

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

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Trials with several airlines

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

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

  • Alaska Airlines has trialed SkyLights technology with first class passengers on selected routes (according to The Economist, it was the first airline in the US to do so).
  • Qatar Airways has trialed Inflight VR’s service in business class on flights to London and Singapore.
  • Iberia ran a similar trial on routes to New York, Miami, and Tel Aviv, as a paid extra for both economy and business class. This is reported to be expanding to some full business cabins.
  • And British Airways has trialed SkyLight’s headsets in first class on flights to New York. It also featured them as part of an exhibition in London looking at the future of aviation.
BA VR headsets
British Airways has trialed VR headsets on the ground as well as in the air. Photo: British Airways

Moving to full service

As yet, it has not entered full use with airlines, but such trials show there is certainly interest. Evolving inflight entertainment and offering the best has long been a major way airlines differentiate themselves and market to customers. Virgin Atlantic did this as the first airline to offer personal inflight entertainment (although the screens were only four inches square). Emirates was not far behind.

There are several challenges to overcome, no doubt part of what airline trials are addressing. It’s fair to say most passengers are not used to using VR headsets – so will they want to do this whilst in a closed aircraft cabin? Will they be comfortable enough for long use? And what about the increased importance of hygiene and sterilization? The potential effects of motion sickness is another consideration.

What about content?

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

Of course, more content will be developed as headset use expands. Movies and shows are an obvious choice. But offering previews of destinations is another option (Qantas did this with headsets in lounges, sponsored by tourism providers). And of course, experiences of better cabins can be both relaxing and good marketing.

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

What do you think of inflight VR? Will it be the next evolution of entertainment, or will it not work in the cabin environment? Let us know your thoughts, or if you have tried it out, in the comments.