Where does VR IFE stand today? taking a closer look at some common concerns

This blog aims to shed light on the current standing of Virtual Reality (VR) for inflight entertainment, and addresses some commonly expressed concerns.

Arguments made in a recent article have been used to provide structure. They have been highlighted in bold below and help highlight the rationale behind SkyLights’ decision to build its VR IFE solution from the ground up (proprietary hardware, software, content management, logistics partnerships) to meet the specific requirements of VR inflight.

VR-IFE offers a great deal of unique opportunities for airlines and passengers. As with any new technology, there are a number of challenges in its implementation. Over the past 4 years, SkyLights has invested heavily in testing, deploying and refining its VR-IFE solution so that passengers can thoroughly enjoy their experience and the airlines can truly benefit from the potential of VR-IFE. These efforts have been outlined in greater detail in SkyLights’ White Paper Virtual Reality IFE - Opportunities & Obstacles Addressed

TECHNICAL HURDLES

Content

“Perhaps the biggest challenge to incorporating VR entertainment into an airplane cabin is the experience around pushing the content to users.” - W-IFE requires a custom app to stream content, which means the VR headset needs computing power. Many VR headsets don’t have this built in but require another piece of hardware to be connected.

This concern is true for passenger-owned devices. Not only are they bulky, making them challenging for airlines to incorporate into their IFE offering, but they also have low resolution screens on which image quality is marginalized further when Streaming VR content. Moreover, early-window Hollywood content is not available on VR headsets on the market due to studio restrictions.

Skylights recognized this problem early on and built the premium Allosky headset specifically for airlines to offer to their business and first class passengers. Allosky is significantly smaller and lighter than most devices on the market. As an airline-controlled device, Allosky has been granted access to early-window Hollywood movies. It has 256 GB of internal storage and can store a wide variety of 2D, 3D and VR content, which can be updated on a regular basis.

It is a stand-alone device with the computer and graphics processing power of an advanced cell phone and hence can support streaming content, to extend the library.

Navigation

“it's also important that passengers have a tool with which to navigate through content. Traditionally, that's handled through an on-screen control menu or tethered, handheld device. But VR users can neither touch their screens nor see an accessory to navigate content, presenting an immediate challenge.” - Wireless handheld controllers used as navigation input for some VR headsets may require some training to use and would either have to be held all the time or would be hard to find without taking off the headset.

Navigation is a crucial part of the user experience. Separate controllers can work well on the ground but aren’t well suited for the inflight environment.

SkyLights has designed an intuitive gaze-based navigation. While watching VR content, users make a selection by looking at what they want to select and interact with the content using the head-tracking sensors in the device.

Additionally, a simple toggle button is provided on the headset to move forward, backward and to make a selection.

Thousands of users have found navigating the Allosky UI to be easy to use and simple to understand.

BUSINESS HURDLES

Challenges for cabin crew

“Crews now need to distribute a headset and a control module (ensuring that they're properly paired first) and in many cases, a piece of hardware that streams or holds all of the content. Training may also be necessary, which requires at least one member of the crew to be savvy with the technology.” - Crews need to deliver a service to passengers that are essentially blind and deaf.

Skylights considers the cabin crew to be one of the most important stake holders in this equation. The Allosky headset is a fully standalone device, with integrated navigation and streaming capability. As such it only needs to be distributed with headphones (or users can plug in their own if they choose to). It can either be tethered to the seat or distributed from a trolley by cabin crew.

Passenger safety is an extremely important consideration. While passengers using VR can be considered in a state similar to sleeping, Skylights offers extra measures to ensure safety announcements are clearly audible to the passengers.

Passthrough audio from the seatback: Skylights has designed an in-seat solution that pauses the headsets & passes the safety audio from the pilot or the crew, anytime an announcement is in progress.

Crew-Operated Wireless Solution: Skylights will soon deploy a wireless solution operated with a wireless control point, integrated by the crew for passing the safety announcements to the Allosky headsets directly, using WiFi servers on-board.

SkyLights also offers short staff training session that can be delivered in person or via video.

Financial liability

“VR headsets, which can cost up to $500, increase that [financial] liability [of lost or stolen devices]. And depending on how many aircraft receive the hardware (American Airlines has over 150 widebody aicraft in its fleet), the cost of stocking each galley can be enormous.” - Offsetting the high cost of procuring and maintaining VR with rental revenue may not be enough to justify the weight and space added to each flight.

SkyLights  has operated an ‘all-inclusive’ leasing model from day one. This model incorporates lost, stolen or broken headsets and also has the advantage of reducing upfront investment by the airline versus other IFE options while also delivering the latest and greatest technology to their premium passengers.

Skylights has long recognized that the risk of theft exists for any business that involves portable electronics devices. The AlloSky headsets are distributed after takeoff and retrieved by the flight crew before landing. In addition, if the headsets are indeed removed from the aircraft without permission, they will be rendered non-functional since the content will automatically expire, and Skylights does not allow side loading content.

More importantly, Skylights has developed an integrated in-seat solution, which not only addresses this concern of theft permanently, but also greatly reduces the operational complexity of distributing and retrieving portable VR devices for an airline. It reduces the crew-involvement and also automatically creates an audio-pass through solution for safety announcements. Skylights considers this to be the ultimate goal for this experience model.

SOCIOLOGICAL HURDLES

Premium only

“For international travelers, a big attraction to flying in business or first class is cavernous seats, premium service and massive televisions. By donning a VR headset, premium passengers effectively get the same experience as an economy passenger could, which negates the whole purpose of buying an expensive seat.” 

Being able to enjoy a movie theater experience with a fully-reclined seat is more enjoyable than the same experience with an 11” seat-back screen and a 29” pitch. That is to say that the Allosky headsets do not replace the comforts of business or first class, but instead augments them with a significantly bigger Full HD screen, additional privacy and a feeling of more space. This is something that premium passengers appreciate as seen by SkyLights’ 90% customer recommendation rate and recorded 3h average usage time.

Furthermore, passengers don’t have to wear the headsets for the full duration of their flight. They can take them off to enjoy the premium food, drinks and whatever else is offer in the business/first class cabin.

Judgement from other passengers

“until the time comes when a passenger – man, woman, black, white, Christian or Muslim – can put on a headset in public and not feel self-conscious, VR headsets will have trouble taking off in flight.”

To help normalise VR adoption inflight, SkyLights’ Allosky has been specifically designed with a sleek and compact form factor that resembles a pair of sunglasses – an item that people are familiar with and feel comfortable wearing.

It is also worth remember here that more self-effacing passengers would likely be more open to trying a new type of experience when they have time to kill on long-haul flights; an argument that is supported by Qantas’ recent study which found VR was one of the most common requests from passengers when asked what they would like to see on ultra long-haul flights.

Concluding words…

Skylights secured its first commercial deployment in 2016, and since then, has been live on around 7000 flights with a recorded 90% passenger recommendation rate and 3-hour average usage time.

VR entertainment is the latest new technology for in-flight and in-lounge experiences. As with any other technology, we fully expect that it will take some time for everyone to feel comfortable with VR IFE solutions. With its deep understanding of the airline market, Skylights has solved most of the obvious concerns in this space. As the industry evolves, there will be more challenges and Skylights will be the first to solve those as they come.

Skylights will continue in its mission to enable anyone to escape, relax and enjoy premium immersive entertainment on demand, anywhere and anytime.

For more information, please contact us at contact@skylights.aero