Inflight VR, a Munich- and Barcelona-based company that is developing virtual reality headsets for use onboard aircraft, says its product has the ability to transform the flying experience.
At least one major industry player agrees.
"We felt that the use case for in-flight virtual reality is very exciting and a great idea," said Tim-Jasper Schaaf, director of marketing and sales for IATA, which has partnered with Inflight VR to promote the product. Among other things, Schaaf said, IATA is bullish about how much lighter Inflight VR headsets are than traditional airline video screens.
"This can have a huge impact as far as aircraft performance and fuel consumption," he said.
Thus far, deployment of the Inflight VR headsets is in the very early stages.
The product debuted last summer. Iberia, Germania, Spanish low-cost carrier Volotea and Lithuanian leisure carrier Small Planet are among the airlines that have tested it on flights, said Inflight VR CEO Moritz Engler. Iberia and Small Planet did not respond to inquiries for this report.
The headsets, which weigh less than a pound, offer users the same types of options they get from a seatback entertainment screen plus many others.
For example, flyers can watch movies, stream live sporting events, play games or listen to audio books while wearing the headsets.
But, Engler said, they can also transport themselves onto a beach or the stage of an opera, for example.
Alternatively, economy flyers can use the virtual reality goggles to create the illusion that they are sitting in a comfortable business class seat.
In demo tests, Engler and Schaaf both said, the use of simulated environments, including business class surrounds, has had a genuine effect on flyers.
"No one would claim it works for 12-hour flights to Singapore," Schaaf said. "But it does work for a short flight. You can see people stretch their legs and get relaxed."
Being able to offer passengers experiences they couldn't otherwise have is one selling point for Inflight VR as it seeks out airline customers. But Engler and Schaaf said carriers could benefit in a variety of other ways, as well.
For one thing, Engler said, in-flight entertainment systems are outdated almost as soon as they are installed in an aircraft. The systems also take up significant seatback space, and installing them is "a massive cost and investment," Schaaf said.
The Inflight VR headsets are less expensive, much easier to replace and update and offer flexibility to an airline in terms of storage options.
Virtual reality also presents new cross-promotional opportunities between airlines and partners in other sectors of the travel industry.
For example, Schaaf said, a flyer headed to New York could be given the chance to watch five minutes of a Broadway show in 3D and then be presented with the option to purchase show tickets. And due to the ease with which content on the Inflight VR system can be changed, such cross promotions could be offered on a flight-by-flight basis.
"You can literally change the content with every destination," Schaaf said.
Of course, virtual reality could have drawbacks, including its tendency to cause motion sickness.
Engler said that in tests with more than 3,000 people that hasn't be in an issue for users of Inflight VR.
"We haven't one case of severe motion sickness," he said. "In terms of how people react, the passengers who try it for a bit come back and say, 'That was very cool, I forgot where I was.'"