FIRST there were the overhead televisions showing films. Then seatback entertainment screens were introduced. More recently, many airlines have introduced in-flight entertainment services that can be accessed on passenger smartphones via the aircraft’s wi-fi system. Could the next step in the evolution of in-flight entertainment be virtual-reality goggles?

Alaska Airlines has just become the first carrier in America to offer virtual-reality headsets on its flights. So far, the programme has limited availability. It was offered as a trial to first-class passengers on two routes, Seattle to Boston and Boston to San Diego, between September 23rd and 27th. Yet if virtual-reality entertainment proves popular with flyers, it could soon become much more widespread.

Alaska is not the first carrier to offer virtual-reality entertainment. The service is provided by an American-French company called SkyLights, which also offers in-flight virtual reality on XL Airways, Corsair and Joon, three French airlines. Meanwhile, a rival company, Inflight VR, recently introduced virtual-reality entertainment on the Lithuania-based Small Planet Airlines, initially on flights between Amsterdam and southern Europe, and its product will be further tested on Iberia of Spain after a trial run between Madrid and Tel Aviv.

So why do airlines think that passengers will like virtual reality in the skies? The most obvious reason is so that travellers do not feel like they are in a plane. People on business trips could imagine that they are on the beach or in the mountains, rather than hemmed into a tightly packed flying tube. For airlines, the potential of virtual reality is attractive, too, given that headsets are much lighter than movie screens, allowing for savings on fuel costs. And there is potential for route-specific promotional virtual-reality content. Tim-Jasper Schaaf of IATA, a trade group, which works with Inflight VR, suggested to Travel Weekly, a magazine, that flyers to New York could watch a short snippet of a Broadway musical in virtual reality and then be offered the chance to buy tickets to the show.

But there are reasons to be sceptical. Travel Weekly claims that “economy flyers can use the virtual-reality goggles to create the illusion that they are sitting in a comfortable business-class seat.” That might work—until they actually try to stretch out and whack their neighbours or bang their knees into the seats in front. It is also hard to imagine how 360-degree virtual reality would even work in an environment where people can barely turn their heads 180 degrees. Finally, there are concerns about motion sickness, which can plague virtual-reality users even when they are not in an aeroplane. InFlight VR’s chief executive, Moritz Engler, told Travel Weekly that tests with more than 3,000 people have not produced any cases of “severe motion sickness”, but that is not completely reassuring.

Still, airlines are clearly interested in the technology. Beyond the ones that have tested it on flights, Qantas has created a virtual-reality app, and Air France, Emirates and Etihad have introduced SkyLights’ virtual-reality technology in some of their airport lounges. To the consternation of travellers who are not thrilled at the prospect of having their seat neighbours turn and flail about in a fantasyland, in-flight virtual reality is only getting started.

Source: The Economist