Skylights Pioneering In-Flight VR

Virtual reality start-up Skylights (Paris, France), a B2B hardware and service provider to airlines, plans to provide in-flight 2D and 3D movies by way of the company’s so-called SkyTheater VR Headset. The current activity in addressing this marketplace is a collaboration with air carrier XL Airways (France).

To put this plan into context, VR has recently become a technology of interest to the airlines. As an example, last year, Qantas teamed up with Samsung in a pilot (ouch! Man. Ed.) project that provided passengers with virtual reality headsets to use in their airport lounges and First Class cabins on selected flights. Skylights points out that these virtual reality headsets were, presumably, developed with home use in mind and not well suited for watching movies in an aircraft cabin.

Conventional VR typically offers a wide viewing angle with the intention that the user moves their head to look around. Such head movements are not that desirable on board an aircraft, especially in crowded economy class cabins. To address these issues, the SkyTheater system is not interactive and provides a fixed screen. In this way, as the user is not required to move their head, the viewing experience feels like watching a movie on a large cinema screen from a center seat. More than that, the SkyTheater headset is claimed to have been optimized for use in an aircraft in terms of weight, size, autonomy and content security.

Up to now, XL Airways, Skylights initial partner airline, has offered a limited in-flight entertainment experience using overhead entertainment screens or rented Samsung Galaxy tablets. With this trial, XL Airways marks the first use of the SkyTheater product in-flight. In addition, XL Airways is the first airline to offer VR in economy class.

The first test consisted of eight headsets and was conducted on four flights between Europe and the Antilles and Reunion Islands. Feedback was reported as particularly enthusiastic. “The first testing phase and the results have been very good with a 99% satisfaction rating.”

During an upcoming second phase, as many as 35 devices will be available on each flight with four more carriers based in Europe and the Middle East (the names of which cannot yet be revealed due to non-disclosure agreements).

The current version of SkyTheater offers 128GB of storage which equates to around 40 HD movies. The next version will allow for content to be streamed to the headset. Moreover, Skylights is reported to be in discussion with Hollywood studios to explore the possibility of offering “Early Window Content” on the headsets. This is considered feasible since the headsets will be owned by the airlines, not the passengers.

Skylights does not view the SkyTheater system as being an immediate competitor to seatback screens. Rather, the company sees their product as complementary. “We have airlines wanting to use them to ‘premium up’ their first or business class product, and we have others who want to rent them to passengers to make additional ancillary revenue.” At the other end of the price spectrum, the headsets may be attractive to no-frills airlines which are often composed of older aircraft that do not have seatback screens.

Skylights has suggested that commercialization may begin during the course of this year. The VR headsets are so new that an exact price is not yet available.

– Arthur Berman