Will VR Disrupt the Airline Industry? Sci-Fi Show Meets Press Virtually Instead of Flying

A proposed benefit of virtual reality is that it could one day eliminate the need to move our fleshy bodies around the world for business meetings and work engagements. Instead, we’ll be meeting up with colleagues and associates in virtual spaces. While this would be great news for the environment and businesspeople sick of airports, it would be troubling news for airlines.

Business travel accounts for almost 30% of the roughly $1.3 trillion in annual revenue of the airline industry. It may be a while (if ever) until VR is held up as a reason for an airline to report an earnings miss or a sales decline, but we now know that in at least one case, VR cost the airline business some money.

NBCUniversal International (NBCUI), part of NBCUniversal’s multinational media business, recently hosted a virtual press junket for Halcyon, a hybrid VR scripted series which launched in September 2016. Press junkets are a tool media companies use when promoting their shows, usually involving traveling talent and crew to various locations to meet with journalists and influencers.

The show, set in the year 2040, is a detective series focused on Halcyon, the world’s largest VR company, and the suspected murder of its CEO. The 15-episode series alternates between 10 episodes available on Syfy channels and accompanying websites outside the US, and five episodes made for VR. Given the show’s VR focus, it made sense to try out a virtual press junket.

To host the press junket, NBCUI partnered with AltspaceVR, a Redwood City, California startup that builds social VR environments for users to meet up and share experiences. This year they have hosted comedy shows and dance parties, and now NBCUI’s first VR press junket. Halcyon cast and crew members, along with journalists from around the world, were able to move around the space as avatars and chat about the show.

“International press junkets can be costly after you include flights, accommodation, venues, hair and makeup and the like,” Lee Raftery, NBCUniversal International’s Chief Marketing Officer, told me. This means that in at least this instance, the airline business missed out on significant sales.

These missed sales numbers aren’t likely enough to cause much of a concern for an airline executive, but there’s often a period of deceptive growth for many information technologies before they improve so dramatically that incumbent businesses are left catching their breath keeping up. It most famously happened to Kodak with the digital camera and Blockbuster with digital media.

Only time will tell if VR poses a similar threat to business travel.

It’s possible that VR could, counterintuitively, have the opposite effect on leisure travel. Spotify and Pandora, two businesses that information-enabled the music business, are cited as being beneficial for undiscovered artists looking to capture a new audience, and the services may actually have contributed to people spending more money on live shows.

Accessing travel experiences in virtual reality could work in a similar way and convince people it’s worth investing in the real thing—thus increasing the demand for travel.

As for the business segment, Raftery points out that NBC isn’t ready to give up on real-world press junkets just yet. “This made a lot of sense as Halcyon is a ground-breaking VR project, but the technology needs to continue to evolve and we are not looking to replace press junkets,” he says.

That may be true, but it could only be a matter of time before VR improves enough to have a meaningful impact on the demand for business travel.

Image Credit: Altspace/YouTube

Aaron Frank
Aaron Frank
Aaron Frank is a researcher, writer, and consultant who has spent over a decade in Silicon Valley, where he most recently served as principal faculty at Singularity University. Over the past ten years he has built, deployed, researched, and written about technologies relating to augmented and virtual reality and virtual environments. As a writer, his articles have appeared in Vice, Wired UK, Forbes, and VentureBeat. He routinely advises companies, startups, and government organizations with clients including Ernst & Young, Sony, Honeywell, and many others. He is based in San Francisco, California.
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