At 35,000 feet, an aircraft cabin can leave one feeling somewhat confined and limited in outlook. But what if you could change your perception from the back of the seat in front of you to a panoramic view of a beautiful beach on a bright, sunny day?
Conventional in-flight entertainment options today only offer small-screen escapism but we want to offer passengers a much, much bigger picture. While installing a giant IMAX screen in our aircraft might be tough, we are working towards the next best thing — Virtual Reality (VR).
We have partnered with Inflight VR, a start-up based in Munich and Barcelona, to solve several critical safety challenges around the implementation of VR on an aircraft – not least as we can’t have people waving their arms about batting off flying monsters that turn out to be the nose of the person sitting next to them.
Inflight VR has just completed a six-month business accelerator programme driven by Airbus BizLab, our start-up incubator headed by Bruno Gutierres.
Speeding up the transformation of innovative ideas
BizLab, founded three years ago, employs a team of 10 people across three locations — Toulouse, Hamburg and Bangalore — and currently has 17 start-ups and 24 internal programmes on its books.
The BizLab in Bangalore recently completed its second season with a flagship event that showcased the work of the five selected start-ups – Neewee, Stelae Technologies, EFLIGHT, SYmbosim and Qualitas Technologies – which have either started working with Airbus or are associated with the aerospace sector.
The world’s first and only hybrid aerospace accelerator, it is, according to Gutierres, different from standard corporate accelerators in that it seeks both external start-ups and internal Airbus teams to incubate.
The result is some interesting cultural cross-pollination, he says: “It mixes start-ups and ‘intrapreneurs’ from Airbus with the aim of speeding up our innovation by interaction with partners from outside the organisation and outside of the aerospace sector.”
“The idea is to help change our internal mindset, make us take more risks and become less risk averse. In effect, rediscovering our pioneering spirit from the early age of Airbus.”
Gutierres, who is well-versed in the start-up world having built two companies before joining Airbus, says Inflight VR pitch to the BizLab jury impressed for a couple of reasons.
“The Inflight VR team really knew what they were talking about and we felt sure they would develop something applicable to aerospace market and, in particular, the passenger cabin. Also, we had internally a project tackling exactly the same challenge, so there was good fit there — funnily enough both had the same name originally,” he says.
“The internal project started with one key assumption: people would come in with their own VR device and so there would be issues about how to handle that. The fact that we had to come up with a project to create an environment adapted to the aircraft cabin meant that all the content and technology that Inflight VR was working on was a perfect fit.”
As part of the programme, Inflight VR worked with Michael Olbert, Manager Multi Domain Simulation at Airbus, who had headed up the internal project to develop a VR solution for use in aircraft.
Inflight VR co-founder and CEO Moritz Engler says the partnership provided a lot of insights on both sides: “We have a lot of people working on the technology on our side and, of course, the experience about the airline industry came initially almost entirely from Airbus. So we were able to put together the best of two worlds and build a really nice VR IFE demonstrator. It is not a final product but we are proud to claim it has the world’s most advanced virtual reality in-flight entertainment system.”
The result is a software solution that works with any device to make VR safe to use in an aircraft by ensuring that content is both appropriate — those flying limbs again — and that the cabin management system can interrupt an immersive entertainment experience for essential passenger announcements.
Engler adds that any content meets high quality standards: “Motion sickness is a prominent challenge at the moment because there is so much really bad VR content out there. And, if you get motion sickness once, you don’t want to try virtual reality again. So there needs to be a solution for these larger challenges.”
He says third party content developers will be able to use a plugin that makes their content “flight safe” but that doesn’t mean it will be boring.
“If you use our solution, you can sit down and be relaxing on a beach, having a really different perception of space around you, stretching your legs, forgetting who is around you, your noisy neighbours, be on your own,” he says.
“On the other hand you can use VR for social behaviour, for example playing games with your seat neighbours or watching a movie in your own cinema, or being in a space environment or being on the stage of the opera… but we wouldn’t put really crazy VR experiences such as roller coaster rides in there.”
The Inflight VR solution was recently demonstrated on Airbus’ stand at the 2017 Aircraft Interior Expo in Hamburg, which Engler says transformed the way his company was perceived.
“It was really great for us, as a small company, to work together with high level people from Airbus and show our solution. If we had only been able to show it ourselves at the Expo, we would mainly have attracted inflight entertainment managers but when you are centre stage at the Airbus booth, you get the head of customer experience or the vice president of engineering from airlines coming by. That helped us a lot. The result was that the airlines loved it and we were able to validate that feedback via surveys. We are super happy with that!”
Gutierres agrees: “BizLab helps open up the Airbus networks to start-ups to help them adapt their product to aerospace operations. They need a lot of support because the industry is highly regulated and development costs are, therefore, expensive and production lead times are lengthy.”
To aid development of the solution, Inflight VR will maintain its relationship with us at Airbus. As part of our BizLab post-acceleration phase, it is able to keep its office space in the BizLab centre for the next 6-12 months and they will still be able to talk through any challenges with an internal Airbus network.
As part of that process Airbus BizLab and Inflight VR successfully performed a series of VR IFE test flights over a two-week period in July. To date, Engler says there have been nine test flights overall featuring more than 50 participants. “No motion sickness occurred and the overall feedback was very positive,” he adds.
Even more positively, Engler says further areas of collaboration with Airbus have been identified: “I think the collaboration has intensified and the level of trust is obviously there now because we have been working together for more than six months and we know them and they know us. I would definitely recommend it, particularly if you are a small company trying to get into the aerospace industry. The BizLab programme is the best that I have seen so far.”
If you are interested in collaborating with Airbus to bring your ideas to life or working as part of the team that is driving the future of flight, why not get in touch with us?