InTrans / Jun 25, 2013

Flying in virtual reality: counterfeit comfort?

Go! Magazine

VR user

posted on June 25, 2013

If you have ever flown on an airplane, you know that it can be a cramped, rather uncomfortable experience, despite the novelty of gliding thousands of feet above the earth. While aboard airplanes, I’ve heard crying babies, hyperventilating thirty-year olds, and grumbling old men all expressing their exasperation at the confined space.

Unfortunately, airplane ridership is only going to increase; the European Commission of Research & Innovation estimates that the number of passenger flights will double by 2028. And airplanes will not necessarily be getting any bigger and more spacious to allow for the increased number of passengers. With profit and the environment in mind, airlines will be packing passengers into each aircraft as tightly as possible to make efficient use of space and fuel.

Counterfeit comfort

Sound miserable yet? Researchers think they might have a solution to the space dilemma by giving passengers the illusion of legroom. In the near future, you may have the option to don a set of virtual reality goggles when you board your airplane. Virtual-and-mixed-reality (VR/MR) technologies would provide passengers with an individualized flight experience, scientists say, giving them the perception of leg room, spacious seats, and soft lighting. The team members call this project VR-Hyperspace, and they have a lot of tricks up their sleeve for providing counterfeit comfort.

Example of a virtual steward
Example of a virtual steward.
Photo from VR-Hyperspace

Through the use of head wear or mounted displays, passengers would enjoy a number of different options to personalize their flying experience. While some passengers might want to see the flight details, including perhaps the airplane’s location in space, others might wish for more of an escape by choosing a completely different setting like a desert, the mountains, or a cabin in the woods. I’ll take a tropical beach, please! For those less flippant fliers, the researchers anticipate an option that allows passengers to virtually attend meetings or conferences that are taking place on earth.

To provide an effective fake-out, researchers are studying complex neuropsychological concepts about human perceptions, such as whether a person who sees a virtual version of himself in a comfortable, multi-sensory setting will actually feel the same in his real setting. A complicated topic, neuroscientists are making great advances, and it may only be a matter of time before we can fly through the sky surrounded by the virtual reality of squawking toucans, warming sunshine, and rushing waves.

But, what if …?

An interesting idea, I immediately relished the thought of a flight spent in quiet tranquility, not to be disturbed by the spine-tingling shrieks of an angry child. However, I wonder if maybe there are some downsides to such unawareness. I am instantly reminded of the Disney movie Wall-E, and I think about the indistinct, blobish bodies floating along immersed in their virtual screens, totally unaware of their surroundings. What if the airplane started to fail and everyone was too oblivious to do anything about it?

On a more practical note, I wonder how long we can feel comfort before we recognize the reality of our discomfort? Will this technology only be applicable for short flights? On flights longer than a few hours, I would think that my lack of arm room and legroom would quickly become a reality, despite the illusion of lounging on a deserted beach. So, does this technology promise us counterfeit or real comfort while flying? Will it prove the old adage right—”there is no reality, only perception”

Go! magazine thanks the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC) for supporting this article.

By Kelly Mantick, Go! Staff Writer

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