Passengers on Iberia‘s flights to New York City and Tel Aviv now have a new option for inflight entertainment. The carrier is running a trial program with Inflight VR, extending its experiment with virtual reality-based content options. The headsets are available to rent on the A350 flight to and from New York’s JFK airport and the A330 flight to Israel.
The inflight trial follows on a successful effort offering the headsets in Iberia’s lounge at Madrid. Iberia’s efforts on this front are measured: each step is a limited duration trial, with data evaluated before choosing to expand or alter the program. In this case Iberia will stock Inflight VR’s second generation Pico headsets for six months on two routes. At that time possible expansion of the program to other routes will be considered.
We think virtual reality has a great potential and it can change the air passenger experience as a part of the in-flight entertainment programme. The viewer is no longer a mere observer, but can take a stroll in the city he or she will be visiting, or simply relax before arriving at the destination. – Nikolas Jaeger, founder and managing director of Inflight VR
The partnership between Iberia and Inflight VR stretches back to 2017 according to Ignacio Toval, Iberia’s Digital Transformation Director. The relatively long relationship in the young VR world helps the two companies to work together as they seek “the incorporation of new technologies and digital innovation during the entire travel experience, from the moment they think about buying a ticket to arrival at the destination.” In this trial the headsets will offer three-dimensional content in games, films, city travelogues, and documentaries, including an underwater Red Sea experience. Passengers will pay 6 euro to rent the devices on board.
Lots of trials
As with a similar program launched in late 2018 between Alaska Airlines and VR competitor SkyLights, airlines remain keen on trials far more than committing full-scale to deployments. Indeed, as PaxEx.Aero has previously examined, on-board adoption of virtual reality systems remains extremely limited. The rapid hardware development cycle and relatively high ownership/management costs of the systems remain significant challenges to the industry. Limited content is another concern. Finally, passenger comfort and vertigo issues are very real with the headsets on, especially if the aircraft is turning at the same time. On the ground in a lounge all of these challenges are easier to overcome than in the sky.
Highlighting the ability for passengers to be fully immersed in a virtual space is a common marketing pitch for these systems. Anything to distract from the close quarters on board is seen as a good thing and airlines have shown some willingness to invest in new IFE/C technologies that help with the distraction efforts. But as Airbus Cabin design executive Stefan List explained in late 2017, “If you wear VR glass in a [high density seating] configuration very close to your neighbor, from a perception view you believe you’re in business class. But as soon as you start moving it comes back from the perception to the physical dimension of the seat.”
Passengers moving around in the virtual space will also move around in their physical space. Fidgety seat mates can already be an annoyance on board; one wholly consumed and distracted by a headset could further increase air rage symptoms rather than alleviate them.
In addition to the human factor issues the VR entertainment systems also face cost challenges. At six euro per flight the headsets will need a relatively high take rate to justify large scale deployments by an airline. Between hardware costs, content licensing and ongoing maintenance/services on the kit the profit margins are slim.