Virtual reality (VR) headsets have been in shops for about a year now, but only one airline, Qantas, has experimented with the technology onboard.
Until now VR has been targeted at gamers, but immersive virtual worlds offer obvious appeal to passengers crammed into thin metal tubes for nine hours at a time.
Most appealingly, they can provide a convincing illusion of spaciousness, transporting users to an infinite variety of environments, from a tropical beach to the surface of the moon.
Even in-flight movies can be transformed: Instead of watching a seat-back device, VR users could see the same film from the back of a pickup in a 1950s’ drive-in, and, crucially, believe they were looking at a cinema screen.
In fact, the visual spectacle is persuasive enough to affect other senses.
“I tried a version where food you saw in VR was bigger than what you were actually eating, and as a result I was satisfied much quicker,” says Sven Taubert, corporate innovation manager at Lufthansa Technik.
Nonetheless, Taubert thinks it will take at least five years before a slick VR experience is developed for airlines, and even then the appeal of virtual environments may be limited.
During the Qantas trial, passengers could do little more than take virtual tours of airports and aircraft – not the escapism they might have hoped for!
There is also the question of lag, as new consumer technology always takes time to make it into the aircraft cabin. For airlines considering VR, this presents a headache, because the first generation of headsets are heavy, power hungry and uncomfortable to use for long periods.
Therefore, instead of investing heavily in VR retrofits, airlines may prefer to wait until the technology has evolved enough to go mobile. Then, passengers can bring their own VR devices aboard and stream film, gaming and locational content from an aircraft’s IFE server.
In the meantime, however, airlines can still benefit from VR to help them train flight crew and maintenance personnel.