Image: Neutral Digital

Is virtual reality starting to live up to the hype its advocates have long promised? London-based Neutral Digital’s recent work is giving airlines compelling reasons to embrace the technology beyond entertaining passengers on long-haul flights.

Neutral Digital has worked with airlines including Air Canada, Cathay Pacific and most recently British Airways (BA) to showcase the look and feel of their aircraft interiors in an immersive virtual setting.

Neutral Digital’s partnership with BA began in late 2018 when it created a 360-degree video experience of its Boeing 787 aircraft interiors for use on SkyLights’ immersive headsets. The airline’s ancillary staff at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 would offer customers the opportunity to try the devices so they could get a sense of the cabin and would be tempted to make an upgrade on the spot.

Shortly afterward, at the beginning of 2019, Neutral Digital began having conversations with BA about how it could create a fully interactive VR experience based on CGI that would benefit the airline. “The place we found the greatest need was – with the integration of Airbus A350-1000 into BA’s fleet – the rebranding of Club Suite,” said Dan Bambridge, Neutral Digital’s growth strategist.

“This is exactly where the sweet spot of VR really comes into play. When there’s something super conceptual and you don’t have any sort of physical mockup.” – Dan Bambridge, Neutral Digital

The original purpose was to enable BA’s staff to visualize the A350 Club Suite and what it would look and feel like for passengers as the seat hadn’t yet been physically built at the time. “This is exactly where the sweet spot of VR really comes into play. When there’s something super conceptual and you don’t have any sort of physical mockup, then building something from scratch in VR allows you to experience what it’s going to feel like before it actually exists,” said Bambridge.

Neutral Digital’s team of 3-D artists and designers worked closely with BA to build a virtual rendering of the airline’s A350 cabin environment. This involved using the same design files used by the airline’s engineers and designers when developing the Club Suite and collecting material references, such as the different color swatches and palettes that BA used in the A350 cabin.

However, when such files are not readily available, Neutral Digital’s content team has to take photos of the designs. For example, the team needed to travel to Collins Aerospace’s office in Northern Ireland to capture images of the customized Super Diamond seat that is used in the Club Suite cabin. This was to understand how the seat functions and moves so that it could be accurately replicated in VR.

Neutral Digital says airlines are becoming attracted to VR, not only for its immersive quality, but also as a way of saving money. According to Greg Caterer, the company’s chief operating officer, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific use Neutral Digital’s virtual cabin renderings at trade shows instead of transporting a physical cabin mockup. “They don’t need a large area at the different trade shows, and they don’t have to transport huge pieces of kit everywhere,” he said.

Additionally, 75 percent of the information taken in when using VR is retained by the average user – the same percentage that is retained by physically performing an activity, said Bambridge. Whereas traditional methods such as experiencing a physical product or just looking at something is between 25 and 30 percent. The interactive element of VR means it’s a lot more engaging and memorable for those experiencing it.

BA is also using Neutral Digital’s CGI technology for marketing. It can create renderings of the Club Suite from any angle with the click of a button and can share the pictures on social media channels or its website.

Moving forward, the company also thinks its VR cabin environments could be used for training staff. “One of the things that we would recommend doing … is building a training facility in VR for an airline, which would replace, for example, one of the number of classrooms that form part of a cabin crew trainee’s journey,” said Bambridge. “Other partnerships that we are actively looking at is with governing bodies to get some, or all of our training certified as being an adequate replacement for training in the physical realm.”