Virtual Reality in the Airline Industry
Dr John Oyekan – Research Fellow, Manufacturing Informatics Centre, School of Aviation, Transport & Manufacturing , Cranfield University, UK
Professor Mark Skilton, Professor of Practice, information Systems Management and Innovation, Warwick Business School, UK
Do you expect virtual reality to play a role in improving the onboard passenger experience in the years to come?
The leading edge of Virtual Reality Technology enables physical spaces to be mapped and digitally reconstructed in virtual spaces for transmission over geographical regions. As a result, customers could be “teleported” to experience what it feels to fly in or board an aircraft before physically doing so. This could open up the possibility of customers to compare cabin space and layout between airlines. Also, it could enable customers to keep in touch with family members, experience the destination s and have meeting with colleagues via the teleportation capabilities offered by VR, sensing and mapping technologies.
How soon do you think these technologies will be in widespread use, if so?
We are already starting to see possibilities inside the on-board cabin customer experience as well as outside in the supply chain and in the engineering systems of the aircraft and airport hubs and beyond. At a simple level virtual reality glasses could be used in seat gaming and is being tested in several hotels in ground based trials. The awareness of smart advertizing is also starting to include VR apps that could help passenger use their mobile devices to find locations, display contextual advertizing and promotions and to gamify their experiences better. With rapid advances in VR, internet sensing and mapping technologies, We believe that this will be achievable in the next 5 to 10 years.
What are the main obstacles to overcome - is it the VR technology itself, or fitting in with the current generation of aircraft and cabin systems?
The biggest obstacles are the computing power required to run VR technologies as well as the complexity of algorithms required to digitally map and represent spaces. Due to this, VR equipment could further increase the weight of the airplane and this could translate to more expensive fares for customers. Beyond this, the need to develop compelling commercial VR content experience is key, this will require testing and developing the right kinds of immersive experiences that support the commercial brands as well as enable the range of partners and suppliers to connect to the new VR platforms to reach this new customer marketing in virtual space.
Or is there a psychological barrier to be overcome before passengers will be willing to use these kinds of services?
One of the psychological barriers that might need to be overcome is the immersion experience offered by VR technologies. This requires customers to shift their concept of realism and physical space. As they could be here but also in another place at the same time. We expect incentives and new ways to engage users will immerge as companies and customers begin the learn good practices in VR supporting by expert advice and research.
What do you think are the most exciting possibilities for airlines and passengers – for example do you think it will be more about giving passengers the chance to explore the cabin before their flight? Or ‘escape' to a tropical beach or play a fun-filled game during a long-haul flight?
The greatest impact could be in experiencing the virtual cabin before during and after the flight in a way that completely redefines the space with augmented information, entertainment and services. Once this “penny drops” that it’s a virtual marketplace then it will scale in adoption. Secondly, it changes the “field of view” of what customer reality is, new creative and even fantasy experiences could be choreographed into these VR spaces, it redefines “access” and “proximity” as it is no-longer physically and geographically fixed. People, places, products and services, social communities and knowledge can be blended and merged in ways we have only just started to realise and explore.
How could this kind of technology work in practice – how would airlines ensure that it fitted in with safety regulations?
The immersive experience and lack of peripheral vision poses a health and safety issue due to reduction in present environment perception. The way to get around this is by having a virtual grid or alert system that senses obstacles or dangers from the real world and overlays it onto the VR environment the customers are experiencing. That way, the possibility of bumping into obstacles might be reduced.
Would it be possible for passengers to get immersed in a virtual world from, for example, an economy seat?
Yes, this is possible. The price of the technology is constantly failing and the hardware are getting smaller by the day. This is an interesting feature of digital VR in that physical exclusivity of a space or object can be copied and multiplexed in the virtual world. Technically everyone could pay for and “sit” in economy, business or 1st class regardless of where they were physically sitting at it becomes irrelevant. This is how to think in VR mindset.
Or would this kind of technology be limited to areas of the cabin where each passenger has more space and is more isolated from fellow passengers?
Not necessarily. customers could pay for the level of VR experience they want to experience while flying. It could also redefine how passengers might choose to relate to each other in the cabin or with loved ones or others outside the flight experience. They could by “proxy” be linked in a VR space with people on the ground while in the air. Or they could link to fellow friends and travellers inside the cabin in the same VR space. Largely anything could be possible but introduces new governance and privacy issues.
Do you envisage airlines offering separate areas where customers could pay to experience virtual reality?
See above answer