Flying solo together: The pros and cons of presence during air travel

[This post from The Economist’s Gulliver blog considers the potential isolating effects of telepresence in the context of air travel; for more information about Skylights see the company’s website and coverage in Apex that includes a 4:07 minute video. –Matthew]

Flying solo together

Virtual-reality headsets on planes mean we can isolate ourselves from irritating cabin-mates

Flying is becoming less communal

Jan 4th 2017
by A.W.

In the early days of commercial flight, people would dress up to take to the air and marvel at the fact that they, members of a heretofore land-bound species, were flying through the sky. Nowadays we clamour for the opposite mindset: one in which we do our best to pretend we are not flying at all.

Such denial has moved a step closer. A French startup called SkyLights has produced a 3-D virtual-reality (VR) headset, with noise-cancelling headphones, that envelops travellers in a cinematic world completely removed from their airborne surroundings. In mid-December, XL Airways, a French low-cost carrier, became the first airline to offer SkyLights to flyers. For $16 per flight, travellers can immerse themselves in new Hollywood releases, in their own individual theatres.

For travellers who want to get away from the many annoyances of flying—from the screaming child in the next row, the loud conversation across the aisle, the seatback movie selection that seems to consist entirely of lowbrow sequels—SkyLights and similar technology could be a godsend. And yet there’s something sad, something resigned, about confining oneself to an isolation chamber while hurtling along at 500 miles an hour with 35,000-foot views of the planet.

Not so long ago, entertainment on aeroplanes was a communal endeavour. Everyone watched the same movies (and short features, and advertising) on the shared screens spaced every few rows. It didn’t make for a great viewing experience, and sometimes there was no choice but to watch the second half of a crappy movie after waking up part way through it. But it still gave flyers a sense that they were all in this thing—this hulking thing riding the air currents—together.

The advent of seatback screens, and particularly touch screens, gave passengers greater autonomy and choice. But if it also meant isolating ourselves from one another and, partly as result, we have begun to feel that the presence of fellow passengers is an annoyance. More recently, airlines have begun offering portable media players or allowing flyers to stream on their own devices. Again, the effect is the same: more freedom, less community.

There are still plenty of hurdles to the widespread adoption of virtual-reality headsets. The biggest is internet connectivity, which remains woefully inadequate to meet current demand, let alone the load that hundreds of VR devices would bring. But slowly, steadily, onboard wi-fi is beginning to improve (although as another Gulliver noted, it could bring its own problems, like internet-based calling, which could turn neighbouring passengers into even more of a nuisance).

And it is possible that technology could steer us in the opposite direction, toward a greater sense of being in the sky. A company called CPI, for example, has designed a window-free fuselage, in which exterior cameras project images onto the inside of the plane and turn the cabin walls, in effect, into one giant window, revealing the skies beyond. Improbable as it may seem, this technology could be a boon to plane manufacturers—for whom incorporating windows is an expensive annoyance—and to passengers who would no longer fight over window seats for a shot at the view that might, if they’re lucky, happen to be visible out of one particular window. It might also reawaken the lost sense of wonder at being suspended above the clouds.

Nothing a noise-cancelling VR headset couldn’t block out, of course. But in the meantime, while all this technology sorts itself out, Gulliver urges flyers to do as he always tries—and sometimes fails—to remember to do: when taking off on a cloudy day, look out the window as you ascend, and catch that transcendent moment when the plane breaks through the cloud cover into the sunny sky above. It truly is a miraculous thing to behold. No matter where technology takes us, let’s not lose sight of that.

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