Will Virtual Reality Change How We Experience Flight?

by Chris Dong

There’s one Japanese airline that regularly markets a direct flight from Tokyo to New York for just $45—in business class, no less. That number is not missing a couple of zeros, and no, it’s not an error fare.

The catch? The flight itself doesn’t go anywhere. “Flyers” sit in recliner seats while “flight attendants” serve real food and beverages. The experience is achieved through monitors and virtual reality headsets, taking passengers all the way from takeoff to landing.

Welcome aboard Tokyo's First Airlines flight...to nowhere.

Welcome aboard Tokyo’s First Airlines flight…to nowhere.

Alright, so Japan’s First Airlines is a novelty more than anything. However, virtual reality is poised to make its mass-appeal aviation breakthrough. The technology is advancing. Headsets are becoming more comfortable to wear. Most of all, airlines are creating unique ways to target consumers both on-the-ground and in-the-air.

Welcome to the future.

It All Started A Few Years Ago

Qantas was somewhat of an inflight product pioneer, testing virtual reality headsets with its first class customers. Back in early 2015, Aussies’ flagship carrier took Samsung’s Gear VR headsets to the skies. For three months, first class not only experienced fine wining and dining, but also 2D and 3D views of blockbuster movies and runway-side videos of the company’s massive A380 planes landing. (That last bit is especially cool for AvGeeks.)

While the pilot program ended in mid-2015, Qantas later created a VR app offering an immersive pre-travel experience of top Aussie attractions. It showcased Australian sites in a beautiful format, allowing passengers to feel like they’d arrived before they ever set foot on a plane. Airline marketing + tech innovation for the win.

Experience some of Australia's iconic landmarks...in VR.

Experience some of Australia’s iconic landmarks…in VR.

Then Came the VR Companies

The inflight entertainment market alone is expected to top $7 billion (think: seat-back screens, Wi-Fi providers, etc.) over the next couple of years. It’s no surprise VR companies that are specific to aviation are cropping up to take a piece of that pie.

2015 was a breakthrough year for airline VR. A former Air France executive and pilot, and a couple of VR enthusiasts came together to form a VR company called SkyLightsAround the same time, another startup came to the scene—aptly-named Inflight VR

Since 2015, SkyLights has been the major player driving VR for airline customers. They’ve developed several models of headsets, with its newest Allosky capable of 2D, 3D and 180-degree viewing—all within a lightweight design. The company is also a content distributor—they’ve smartly created media partnerships with the likes of 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and more.

Allosky Headset SkyLights

SkyLights latest VR headset is about as light as an iPad.

Of course, like any new airline innovation, it’s marketed to the premium cabins first. See: Captive Environment: Airlines Are Becoming Experiential Marketing Pods

With airlines particularly interested in fostering loyalty among their premium passengers SkyLights has decided to focus on tailoring its solution to upgrade and differentiate the business class experience. Once established, it will then spread to the back of the plane.

The Upshot

The last three years has seen a surge in VR within the airline world. Many airlines are biting at the tech. They’re experimenting with VR as entertainment and even more interestingly on the ground.

To the dismay of travelers who are not thrilled at the prospect of having their fellow seat-mates turn and flail about in Fantasyland, in-flight virtual reality is just getting started. And while all this is fascinating, what happened to good old fashioned looking out the window?

Soon, sitting in an economy middle seat (or the last row of American’s 737 MAX) might actually be tolerable—thanks to VR.

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