Dutch aerospace research centre NLR has highlighted potential safety risks of passengers wearing virtual-reality headsets, after a cabin simulator trial at KLM's base in Amsterdam.
Some 40 KLM employees volunteering as passengers and crew took part in the two-day evaluation, which involved three flight scenarios each lasting about 10-20min – a calm flight, turbulence, and a rapid decompression.
Two-thirds of the participants were given VR headsets, while the remaining volunteers viewed the same content – a virtual representation of flight transfers at Schiphol airport – on mobile phones.
NLR says flight attendants had to make a "greater effort to establish contact" with participants wearing VR headsets during the calm scenario, which otherwise did not reveal "anything out of the ordinary".
During the decompression trial, some of the VR headset users – "remarkably" – were "unaware of the emergency because they were entirely absorbed in their virtual world", despite simulated shaking of the cabin, deployment of oxygen masks, noise, light flashes and the crew calling out instructions, says NLR.
Noting that the trial has yet to be fully analysed, with results due to be published in September, NLR adds: "The effect that researchers suspected beforehand was apparent during the test, namely that wearing a VR headset affects communication between passengers and crew."
Employment of VR headsets "might affect the level of onboard service, and there is potentially also a safety risk", says NLR.
The researchers acknowledge that VR headsets "can provide an experience [and] be informative", but warn that the technology's employment "should not be at the expense of communication with the crew and safety on board".
For development of VR apps, "it is important to take these matters into account", argues NLR.
A participant of the trial recalls in a blog hosted by KLM that it was difficult to navigate the virtual walk through Schiphol during the turbulence scenario and that she inadvertently hit her seat neighbour's hand in the process.
"The cabin crew must have nerves of steel. It takes complete discipline on their part to keep those of us with VR glasses in line. We hardly even respond when they offer us our meals… Social skills? Forget it!" she writes.
The participant asserts, however, that VR provides new opportunities for IFE and suggests that the technology could be employed to inform passengers about safety procedures in a more instructive manner than via films or cabin-crew instructions.
Funded by the EU, the trial is part of a research project into the use of VR on board aircraft which was launched in 2016 under the the bloc's Clean Sky programme.