Are we virtually there yet? Can 3D technologies improve our inflight experience?

10 Feb 2014 16:26:02.087

PA 39/14

Smaller seating, lack of leg-room, inconsiderate passengers – they have all become an accepted part of the flying experience. But what does the future hold? Is it standing room only or solar powered super-sonic windowless aircraft? Is it 3D printed planes with panoramic vistas? 

The aircraft industries are exploring many ways to increase efficiency and capacity of future planes, but how will this affect us as passengers? These are the issues being explored by an international team of experts in the field of virtual environments.

The VR-Hyperspace project, led by The University of Nottingham, is investigating how virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) can enhance comfort by changing the very perception of ourselves and the space around us. Put simply – can we use 3D technologies to convince ourselves that we are in a more comfortable place regardless of what our physical space is like?

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This ambitious €4.6 million project funded under the European Aeronautics and Air Transport (AAT) work programme began in 2011. It brings together leading psychologists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and aviation and aerospace industries around Europe to explore enhancing comfort and reducing discomfort in air travel.  

Project Co-ordinator, Dr Mirabelle D’Cruz, from the Human Factors Research Group (HFRG) at Nottingham, said:  “The air cabin is an extreme challenge to personal comfort – psychologically, physically, socially and environmentally. When we fly we are in a small confined space for a duration of time, with restricted movement, faced with bright lights, noises, smells, and in close proximity to people we may know or don’t know, whether we want to be or not. VR-HYPERSPACE explores whether we can change any of these conditions to make them more acceptable so that we can carry out our activities of work, rest and play in comfort, or at least minimise the discomfort.”  

It’s not magic, it’s science!

Based on scientific research into virtual embodiment by partners at the University of Barcelona, and space perception research by partners at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tȕbingen, the team are developing concepts aimed to convince you that you are relaxed in a larger space and able to carry out activities in a much better way.  The virtual embodiment and space perception research is used to create positive illusions of perceived virtual self and space.  By understanding these illusions, the developers are able to design virtual environments which will have a stronger impact on passenger experience. 

Putting a little glamour back into flying

Using 3D immersive projection-based displays, headsets and sound, the project has developed concepts to enhance the cabin environment and social interactions.  The “enhanced cabin” concept has been developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (FhG-IAO) in Stuttgart.  This is a mock-up of an aircraft cabin with seats in a row and 3D displays on the cabin walls, seats in front and even on the floor. Dr. Matthias Bues, Head of the Competence Team Visual Technologies at FhG-IAO, says: “Computer generated virtual environments can be projected on the displays giving the illusion of an invisible plane.  You feel that you are flying through vistas of a tropical island or city-scapes. In our “super-here” scenario the features of the plane journey are enhanced so that you can enjoy the experience of flying. In our “super-there” scenario we can take you out of the plane to another more relaxing environment. If you had any fear of flying, this may help you on your journey.”

The VR-HYPERSPACE Aviation Advisory Board (AAB) chaired by industrial partners Airbus Group Innovations (formerly EADS Innovation Works) and Thales Alenia Space Italia (TAS-I), was set up as part of the programme to represent stakeholders from industry and the scientific community interested in aircraft interiors, airplane passengers and comfort. Their role is to give advice and to look at the feasibility of the concepts for future aircraft.  Dr. Michael Olbert (Airbus Group Innovations) says: “The AAB’s best advice was to bring the excitement of flying back! Just like in the 1940’s when flying was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime event and planes were like luxury hotels.”  

Enhanced social interaction

Bauhaus-Universität Weimar developed a unique multi-user 3D telepresence system for the “enhanced social interaction” concept. 3D images of people in remote locations can be beamed into your space and you can communicate with them. 

For example, you could be on the plane and a close friend could sit next to you as a virtual 3D representation while you watch and discuss a movie together. Or you could be beamed into your child’s bedroom to read a story before bedtime so that you are always there for important tasks and connected to the people you want to be.  TAS-I, ICCS and VTT are developing a telerobotic application based on a safety-critical task in space – an astronaut trapped on the moon – to investigate the issues around remote operations in a confined environment. 

How will it work

Currently headsets and projected displays are the easiest option to transport passengers into a virtual world. As more and more of us become 3D enabled eventually we might even be able to create a world of your own – accessing our dream destination from our phone, tablet, glasses or even contact lenses.

This new innovative approach has far-reaching applications in other forms of transport and in healthcare and education. For instance, it can transform the lives of hospital patients in confinement and isolation for long periods of time – enabling them to change their environment to a more comfortable space while interacting with their friends and family without risks of infection or the need for constant travel.

Now prove it works

As the research project moves into its final stages the next twelve months will be spent finding out if these ideas could really work turning virtual reality into reality.  The VR-HYPERSPACE team will not only test the concepts in the lab but also in the field, in their own journeys flying around the world.  

The Partners:

UK: The University of Nottingham
Germany: Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO
Bauhaus-Universität Weimar
Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
EADS Innovation Works
Finland: Valtion Teknillien Tutkimuskeskus
Spain: Universitat de Barcelona
Greece: Institute of Communications and Computer Systems
Italy: Thales Alenia Space Italia S.p.A.

Images courtesy of Victor S. Brigola.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottinghamhas 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also the most popular university among graduate employers, the world’s greenest university, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the World's Top 75 universities by the QS World University Rankings.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Mirabelle D’Cruz, or Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 9515751 or Cora Kürner Press and Public Relations, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics on +49 (0)7071 601-603, or Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Juliane Segedi, Press and Public Relations Fraunhofer IAO on +49 (0)711 970-2124,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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