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Enhancing passenger experience in future air transport (VR-Hyperspace)

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all – while stuck on a crowded airplane? Adopting radical approaches using virtual, enhanced and mixed reality, the ‘VR-Hyperspace’ project is targeting a paradigm shift in the way we ‘see’ passenger comfort.

Tags: Air
Testing virtual reality goggles ©VR-Hyperspace
Testing virtual reality goggles
© VR-Hyperspace

The number of passenger flights is expected to double by 2028. At the same time, environmental challenges mean air transport is under heavy pressure to become more streamlined and efficient, including maximising the number of passengers per amount of fuel spent.

In this context, it seems unlikely that passengers will see an increase in their personal space. Indeed, a key challenge for the aviation industry is how to place a maximum number of passengers in a minimum amount of physical space, while maintaining an acceptable level of comfort.

One possibility now being considered by the EU-funded VR-Hyperspace project is a more personalised flight experience, based on the latest virtual-and mixed-reality (VR/MR) technologies.

“We are investigating increasing passenger comfort by changing one’s perception of space,” explains Mirabelle D'Cruz of the University of Nottingham. “Our vision is that regardless of future variations in aircraft interiors, we can use VR/MR to create positive illusions, to enable passengers to feel better and carry out their activities in what they perceive to be a spacious cabin.

“We imagine on-board virtual experiences based on passengers' preferences in terms of work, rest and leisure.”

These virtual experiences, she says, could be displayed on the surfaces of the aircraft interior – seats, cabin walls and floors – or directly displayed through headsets onto passengers’ retinas.

“Meanwhile, airlines could provide or sell smart goggles and headphones that would enhance the flight experience. Even today, such goggles could enhance journeys by providing information about the flight and destination and by displaying views of the aircraft’s location in space.

“At a general perceptual level, virtual illusions will give passengers the impression that the cabin space is wider, that their seat is bigger or that the person next to them is further away, and that the environment is appropriate to their needs,” says D'Cruz.

Going a step further, passengers may soon be able to place themselves, virtually, into a different setting, such as a workplace or a beach on a tropical island. Colleagues seated in different locations on the plane, along with people on the ground, could meet in a virtual location, such as a familiar meeting room, a specified location in a particular city, or in the middle of a desert.

It’s not science fiction

VR-Hyperspace is testing concrete technologies such as head-mounted displays and external display surfaces, but it is also working to better understand human perception of space and comfort, encompassing self-representation and interaction with others and the environment.

D’Cruz explains, “Air passenger comfort studies generally focus on the physical aspects of the aircraft interior, like seating, lighting, legroom. We are developing and testing computer-generated illusions, based on recent studies in neuroscience and the psychology of perception, to investigate whether these illusions enable a person to feel that that they are in a more spacious, relaxing and engaging environment.”

Among the key results of the project is a new research roadmap to support the sustainability of Europe’s aerospace industry by detailing steps to develop current and future immersive technologies and applications for use in aircraft cabins.

In addition, says D’Cruz, VR-Hyperspace has relevance not only to aeronautics and air transport, but also to other transport modes, from submarines and other seagoing vessels, to busses, trains and metro carriages.

“European funding has enabled us to bring together an international team, with nine partners from six different European countries,” she acknowledges. “Each partner brings significant expertise in a leading-edge research and technology area. Together, we are reaching outside the current state of the art to consider technologies beyond 2050.”

The results, she says, represent a step change with respect to current conventional thinking and have the potential to deliver significant improvements in many strategic areas, from health, mobility and the environment to European industrial competitiveness.