Alaska Airlines is adding virtual reality to its in-flight entertainment menu in an experiment aimed at recreating a movie theater experience at 35,000 feet.
The Seattle-based airline has partnered with SkyLights, a French-American immersive-media company, to offer VR headsets and noise-canceling headphones to first-class customers on 10 flights that go between Seattle and Boston, and Boston and San Diego.
The users can watch 2-D and 3-D films such as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” or “Ready Player One.” They can also click into 360-degree, head-tracking virtual-reality videos.
SkyLights’ lightweight Allosky VR headsets have been adopted for tryouts on other airlines, ranging from Joon and XL Airways to Lufthansa, but Alaska Airlines’ experiment ranks among the most ambitious yet. It follows months of testing and tweaking by Alaska’s Guest Advisory Board, which includes some of the airline’s most seasoned frequent fliers.
“I’m really excited to see this technology onboard,” David Scotland, Alaska Airlines’ manager of in-flight entertainment and connectivity, said in a blog posting published today. “I was impressed with SkyLights’ Allosky headset early on, as it’s the smallest, lightest and most stylish-looking headset in the in-flight entertainment market.”
Scotland said the in-flight trials, which began Sunday, would help the airline see how comfortable passengers are with the technology, and help flight attendants gauge the effect on in-flight service. A SkyLights representative will be onboard for each of the flight tests to provide support for passengers and flight attendants.
“We’re testing with guests in our first-class cabin as it makes for a nicely contained focus group in the air,” Scotland said. “We’ve made no official commitments to pursuing VR long-term, but this trial will help us shape our future strategy.”
Update for 11:20 a.m. PT Sept. 24: It may seem as if watching VR on a plane combines the worst of two stereotypically barf-inducing experiences. “I get nauseous just thinking about this,” one of my editors, Todd Bishop, says in a tweet. But after an early trial on XL Airways’ flights, 95 percent of the passengers who tried out the headsets reported that they were satisfied with the experience. More than half of the testers said they’d consider buying a headset for their personal use outside the aircraft.
Back then, SkyLights CEO Hamassala David Dicko acknowledged that the trial was conducted with fixed-screen content rather than head-turning VR content. Since then, SkyLights has been careful about the VR that it’s adding to the mix.
Here’s how SkyLights’ Rory Gillies explained they company’s approach in a Facebook posting last month:
“The feeling of nausea [in VR] is caused by the incongruity between signals sent to the brain from visual stimuli and the vestibular system (sense of balance). This can be either caused by content that stimulates the brain to expect acceleration (e.g. a VR roller coaster) or by a lag in the head tracking system.
“To address the former point, we carefully select VR pieces with our content partners, which are short (5-10 m) and have slow pacing as well as minimal camera acceleration and rotation.
“For the latter, we use a VR headset with an imperceptible lead time of less than 20 ms, thus preventing nausea caused by visual lag.
“Before launching VR content, we ran in-flight user tests, in which there were no reports of a passenger that experienced VR sickness.”