Flying with VR

I find myself in an airplane a couple of times a year, and every time the experience is the same. I'm in a small space in a seat that isn't uncomfortable but but still a little awkward, and I usually either grab a book or watch a movie I've downloaded to my tablet. This last trip, I decided to download movies to my phone and watch them through my VR headset. There were no expectations, I mostly wanted to see if watching in VR was any different from watching on my tablet.

It was the best pair of flights I've ever had, I can't recommend it enough! Here's a few tips for getting the best possible experience out of adding VR to your next flight.

The benefits of using VR while flying

Flying with VR

If you travel alone, and you don't travel First Class, getting in an airplane means sitting very close to someone you've never met before. Just about everyone has an airplane horror story, and they almost always have to do with the people you share a row with. Babies crying, pets on the floor by your feet, sitting in the middle seat while people snore on either side of you, and the list goes on deep down into sadness and bad times. Sliding on a good pair of headphones can mentally distance yourself from a lot of this, but a good VR experience will take you as far from the real world as you can get when your body is being flung through the air in a big metal tube.

Your VR headset replaces the world around you with the illusion of more space. Sitting in a virtual movie theater helps you feel like you've got more room to stretch out even when you don't, which in turn helps your body relax for the flight. You can lean back and rest your head on the headrest, load up your favorite movie, and sit in the virtual silence of your virtual theater while everything around you continues to happen.

This level of isolation isn't particularly safe on local mass transit systems like busses and trains, where the potential for theft is much higher, but on an airplane this experience makes a great deal more sense. It's easier to disappear into the movie you're watching, and the audio created by your movie can be adjusted to totally drown out the world around you or give you just enough hearing to catch the flight attendant when it's time for those free drinks and snacks. The bottom line is you're in control of your experience, which is largely untrue when it comes to most other forms of entertainment on an airplane.

How to deal with VR on an airplane

The first thing you want to ensure is that you have a comfortable VR headset. Something portable you're able to wear for two hours without becoming uncomfortable. You aren't likely to bust out an Oculus Rift and gaming laptop for this flying experience, which means you're either using some form of Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, or a Samsung Gear VR. Most Google Cardboard headset aren't built for comfort, so you're most likely using Daydream View or a Gear VR that has been fitted to your ideal comfort level.

Unlike sitting still on a couch in your living room, flying with VR on will cause some occasional problems with the center of your view. You may be sitting still, but the plane around you is moving and the VR headset doesn't know the difference. If the plane is slowly turning left or right, your image will drift as though you're slowly turning around in a swivel chair. This means you're either going to need to re-center your view occasionally to correct for this. A way around this would be using Netflix's Void Theater mode, but the Netflix VR app currently doesn't support the video download feature recently added to Netflix.

If you're looking for an app that allows the video to stay focused on your face while the plane moves, your best bet is the app you're most comfortable with.

  • Daydream View owners have access to Google Play Movies, which supports an offline mode where you can pin movies to watch while offline. While watching, you can use the Daydream Controller to re-center your view if necessary.

  • For Gear VR owners, Oculus Video will be the best place to start. Oculus Video required you to have downloaded your movies from another source, so me sure to test your video files in the app before you get on a plane. When you are ready to watch, Oculus Video lets you choose where you're watching in VR with a list of options including the surface of the Moon.

Obviously the one big downside to watching a movie in VR with your phone is the increased battery drain. A 2 hour movie on a Pixel XL playing locally will normally consume 17% of the battery, but in VR that number climbs to 50%. This is a problem for longer flights and multiple movies, especially if you need your phone to act like a phone when you land. Even if you're only watching one movie on the plane, the two hours of isolation is often better than a 5 hour flight surrounded by strangers. You can also connect your phone to power while inside the VR headset if you have a portable battery or your airplane includes power outlets, but you run the risk of encountering overheating problems depending on the phone you are using for VR.

Going to give it a shot?

Have you tried using VR on an airplane before? Are you going to make sure your VR headset is close by on your next flight? Share your experiences in the comments!