I’m over in California for the Virtual Edge conference later on the week, so I thought I’d do a diary of my week…

Day 1:

I flew Virgin Atlanic to San Fransisco airport and had a nice flight and managed to catch 3 movies and some TV using the in-flight entertainment system.  This is a real-life everyday example of a hybrid physical/digital experience which I shared with a pretty packed airplane.  Here’s my review of the whole experience from booking to landing:

Booking:  Went via our travel agent so was not exposed to Virgin’s systems, but the price was an attractive £405 return.  5 stars.

Online info: As it was a 10-hour flight I wanted to check out whether or not the flight would have any good movies, or whether I’d have to load up my iPod with some films.  The Virgin Atlantic website had a full run-down of all the films on offer, with synopsis’, and explained that they have an entertainment system – i.e. not just channels, but movies on-demand.  This meant I could choose what I could plan what I wanted to watch and I knew I wouldn’t have to rely on my iPod.  I identified 3 films, which I did indeed watch:

  • Slumdog Millionare
  • Valkyrie
  • The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button

That was pretty cool.  Extras features could’ve included

links to reviews on the Internet Movie Database (easy to do)

Option to customise my channel online and have that available on the on-flight entertainment system.  For example, choose favourites.  Review the films later on.  This could include reviwing for watching on a plane as opposed to on a home system.  Benjamin Button for example was very dark and didn’t show up well on the screen provided.

Check In:  Step 1 was easy enough via a touch screen kiosk.  Weighing scales were provided which allowed me to see my carry on was overweight.  No one actually checked, so it wouldn’t have mattered but it prompted me to redistrbute some things to my check-in luggage which I didn’t really need, saving my shoulders carrying it around.  The kiosk was good, but again there was an opportunity for more personalisation of my experience and tie in with the website.

Step 2 was rubbish – the queing up part to check in my luggage.  The flight was pretty full and I had to queue for 45+ minutes.  No seating, no entertainment, no better queueing system, nothing.  A low-tech queue.  FAIL!  How about chairs with wheels with the fold out entertainment system.  I could start watching one of those films perhaps 🙂  Missed opportunity to engage with me / sell me things when I was probably up for buying food / entertainment.

Step 3 – go to gate.  Rubbish – queuing again.  To be fair this was probably BAA’s fault as the lounge was not large enough for the flight.  Lots more queuing.  FAIL.

Flight – This was fine.  Good take off and landing.  Staff were friendly and food nice and at the right intervals.

On-Board Entertainment System – Here’s where the physical event meets the digital experience.  The vision here is to deliver personalised entertainment.  Didn’t seem yet to extend to take in the fact I am also in some ways sharing this experience with others.  For example, what’s the most popular film at the moment on-board / for recent flights.  Chatting with others on board etc.  The system is certainly a step on from the days of the broadcast model where you can watch a particular film at a particular time on a certain channel.  This was video on-demand where you could pause, replay etc.  There was a good selection of films (60!), TV, games etc.  I watched the 3 films I had previously chosen online which was fun.  Virgin had certainly taken the opportunity to brand the experience with a trailer positioning them as the UK’s flag carrier (i.e. vs British Airways, it’s arch rival) and doing it in cool red style rather than the drab competion.  They also had a tie-in with Pearl & Dean – “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba. Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Baaaaaaaaaaaa Bu!”, including a branded choc ice during the flight.  I think the cinema analogy could be taken a lot further as the similarities are quite great – lots of people, cinema style seats food etc..  Perhaps if people felt that they were going to the cinema rather than a flight they might enjoy it more!

The downside of the system is that it was clearly a bit dated.  The screen resolution was low and had poor contrast – Benjamin  Button was very hard to watch in places.  The screen is also quite reflective which was distracting.  The controls for the system were not easy to use either.  It was clear that the system, like so many things had not been particularly tested in a real situation – when I paused and stood up for any reason, when I sat back down I pretty much always stopped the film, by accidentally pressing the stop button.  One more press and the film would’ve reverted to the main menu.  The controls were also too involved, using up and down arrows for some things and coloured buttons for other things.  Clearly some of these issues are hardware related – screen’s control pads etc. and even better software might involve a significant hardware upgrade.  Given where ipod’s are going with multitouch I imagine that the next iteration of in-flight may involve touch screens and be much more intuitive (although think of all those sticky finger marks! -yuk!).  Perhaps just much better screens would be a start.  Some careful thought about the environment these films would be viewed in would improve the situation too.  For example, why not up the brightness in the encoding on Benjamin Button.  All the films looked like they’d been downgraded to improve the streaming and had lots of banding and digital artifacts, so why not use some standard algorithm to optimise for viewing on crummy, reflective screens too.

All in all, for a busy flight, pretty good, but certainly there is a lot of room for improvement too.  Probably the easiest way to improve the experience would’ve been to start the cinema experience early in the queue.  Red carpet, or simulated red carpet sticker on the floor, hand out complimentary popcorn, movie reviews or the in-flight magazine, stuff for bored kids etc.

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