VR in airports: Driving sales, beyond entertainment

VR will add more interactivity to the customer's experience (Image via Emirates).

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In early 2015, the Australian flag carrier Qantas Airways, in partnership with Samsung, brought Virtual Reality (VR) to its first-class cabins and lounges. This event — which was the first of its kind in the industry back then — enabled  the passengers to land on Hamilton Island, dive the Great Barrier Reef, and climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge; all while sitting in  their seats comfortably.

Three years ago, that was a head-turning experience; but nowadays, airline companies are fiercely competing against each other to further distinguish themselves in their use of the latest technological breakthroughs including VR, as incorporating new tech to enhance the passengers’ experience has become a must. It has turned into a service that goes beyond onboard entertainment options to accompany the passengers in their journey right from the very beginning until their arrival in the flight’s waiting lounge.

According to Shujat Mirza, UAE Chapter president at the global industry association for Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality (VRAR) Association that connects solution providers with brands and customers, VR is a game changer. “It is not only changing the way we will consume content, but it also allows us to interact with this world better,” he said in an interview with Wamda.

Examples from around the world

Aiming to generate higher footfall and boost their sales, airlines around the planet have spared no effort to take full advantage of the best of VR. In early 2017, Lufthansa passengers were offered the opportunity to try out the innovative Avegant Glyph video glasses in the Business Lounge. “Entertainment electronics play an important role in travel. We have selected an impressive innovation from the incredible amount of new products available. Our guests can try these out informally and in a relaxed atmosphere,” said Dr. Torsten Wingenter, senior director digital innovations at Lufthansa. The carrier has also tried a creative way to sell upgrades to Premium Economy passengers at the departure gate. By inviting passengers to put on VR glasses and texamine, via a 360-degree view, how the Premium Economy seat and cabin look, Lufthansa hoped that the passengers who had booked in Economy class would consider purchasing an upgrade. Those who decided to upgrade their seats were able to pay the surcharge directly at the gate. According to what Lufthansa reports, it has already achieved considerable success in upgrading passengers to Premium Economy using VR in the U.S.

Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) has also adopted a similar approach. By putting on the KLM’s Flight Upgrader VR glasses, the passengers can upgrade his budget flight to a KLM flight, virtually.  By using the Flight Upgrader app and putting the smartphone in a cardboard (the VR headset,) the passenger can start enjoying all the benefits of an all-inclusive flight package. Passengers can then watch a movie on KLM’s entertainment system; use the free KLM media app to read their favorite newspaper; enjoy what a caring crew feels like; and indulge in a real, free, delicious meal.

Since August 2017, and in partnership with startup SkyLights, Air France has been conducting trials of an immersive entertainment system with VR headsets that allow customers to entertain themselves by watching 3D and 2D motion pictures  or TV series in a completely private movie theatre of their own that isolates them entirely from whatever is happening within the cabin.

SkyLights was founded in 2015 by David Dicko, a former Air France executive and pilot; Florent Bolzinger, a VR enthusiast; Laurence Fornari, a video streaming former entrepreneur; and Rateb Zaouk, an operations powerhouse. The company’s objective is to exploit the latest cinematic VR technology to do an extreme makeover on the inflight experience.

The UAE is a regional leader

In line with the global trends, the UAE is on a quest to raise the bar when it comes to embracing tech and innovation across all industries; and, of course, aviation is included.

Last April, Etihad Airways trialed SkyLights Aero VR entertainment technology at its First Class Lounge and Spa and Business Class Premium Lounge at Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Terminal 3. The purpose of the trial, which lasted for a whole  month, was to collect feedback from customers to identify the future of the airline in terms of entertainment aspects presented at Abu Dhabi’s Midfield Terminal. Speaking on the trial, Linda Celestino, Etihad Airways vice president guest experience and delivery, said, in a press release: “We are constantly investigating ways to enhance our service and hospitality offering on the ground through innovative technology and customization. By conducting trials such as this, we already understand that modern travelers expect more information and seek increasingly connected and immersive experiences which engage and entertain them on every level. Gone are the days when a premium lounge experience just meant comfortable design, luxurious amenities, and fine dining.” According to her, such a technology would provide more personalization and end-to-end entertainment solutions across all customer demographic.

Emirates Airline is also in a pursuit to establish itself as a pioneer in this domain. The carrier had also trialed SkyLights theatre headsets last March in its Dubai airport lounges for an immersive cinematic experience. The headsets were tested in the Business Class lounge in Concourse B last April and in the First-Class lounge in concourse B this May.

The experience provided the travelers with 3D and 2D content via a fixed screen equipped with a wide-angle view and Skylight theatre headset, along with a wholly HD viewing experience. The headset is characterized by its built-in sound and video that allow customers to submerge  themselves within whatever they are watching. An assortment of content of films and documentaries will be available, including 360-degree videos.

In an interview with Wamda, an Emirates spokesperson reported that this complimentary entertainment service had received positive feedback. He also mentioned that if the trial continues to be well-received through customer assessment, the airline plans to roll out the experience across all its seven lounges in Dubai. “Having assessed a number of concepts and suppliers, introducing the immersive theatre and innovative SkyLights headsets in our lounges has proved to be a valuable experience,” the spokesperson said. He explained that the carrier is constantly searching for ways to surprise and delight its customers through its premium services and offers that includes a wide range of gourmet cuisine, shower facilities, health spa, and dedicated children’s play areas. “Leveraging technology for an immersive cinematic experience was the clear next step,” the spokesperson said. Emirates’ VR usage won’t be limited to entertainment, as it is examining different aspects of the business in whichVR technologies are applicable to improve the customer’s experience whether still on the ground or flying in the air.

Mirza confirms the fact that VR can transcend the boundaries of entertainment and go far beyond. He believes that although Emirates and Etihad Airlines have launched VR entertainment in their lounges at the airports, there is still much more that can be done in other domains. For instance, VR can be utilized to engage with customers. This technology can be also quite valuable to train employees, as he added, “We did hear Emirates Airline is investing in an AR headset for it is crew which again was very good news, but we are yet to see a full used scenario.”

Where and how to use it?

During Arabian Travel Market, one of the major regional conferences for the travel industry, Emirates Airline equipped their couches with VR to take the show’s visitors on a journey. Mirza believes that the same could be used to offer travelers an immersive experience of a top-class business or leisure travel to enable them to have a virtual tour through which they review the comfort or the overall specifications  of a certain seat onboard without even having to buy a ticket, which is very similar to what Lufthansa has done. This would encourage the customers, or inspire them, to book with this specific airline for a service or experience it provides. VR in airports will ease layover and transform the airports into destinations travelers prefer and long for.

Numerous startups could be involved

Numerous startups have been developing VR products in the UAE, but not specifically targeting the airlines industry. These include GigaWorks which is a VR film and content making agency; TAKELEAP, a startup that produces both VR and AR content; Eventagrat, which develops regional content; and PearQuest, an agency that develops immersive content. According to Mirza, brands are still depending on outsourcing VR requirements to other players in the US, Europe, and the UK — and this explains both carriers’ (Etihad and Emirates) involvement with SkyLights. However, “the UAE government has been very encouraging and leading initiatives to boost the homegrown VR/AR ecosystem,” Mirza concluded.

The future of on board-tech

According to Emirates, technology is reshaping the airline industry; and the carrier is embracing newfangled tech to interact with its customers in unprecedented ways. “For instance, we have been working on new technology initiatives with our aviation partners and stakeholders to fast-track projects that will enable us to overcome challenges and improve the Emirates customer journey at our Dubai hub,” the spokesperson said. Consequently, travelers will begin to experience a smoother and more satisfying airport experience with the implementation of initiatives like biometric technology and modern automated border control (ABC) gates. The company is also working on building the world’s first sector-wide Experimental (X) Lab to help build a new transportation paradigm.

Mirza is convinced that VR will disrupt enterprises and eventually alter the training and learning curve of employees. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a leading provider of trainings for the aviation industry, is also a strong believer in that notion. The association has been exploring this technology since late 2016 and developed RampVR – a virtual reality training solution for ground operations. The future is clearly holding promises of more interaction, whether on the ground or in the air.

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