Journey within a Journey: Qantas Brings Virtual Reality to the Skies

Samsung Gear VR via Samsung

Now you can get away while you get away. In an industry first, Qantas Airways teamed up with Samsung to offer in-flight virtual reality.

Gear VR was developed by Samsung and VR titan Oculus: It’s an immersive headset driven by the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Qantas is rolling out Samsung Gear VR in its SYD and MEL first-class lounges in February 2015, and then in the first-class cabins of some of its LAX-bound A380 flights the following month.

Seeing is Believing

Early content will include immersive walk-throughs of Qantas’ luxury lounges, so you could hang out in the LAX First-Class lounge 13 hours before you hang out in the LAX First-Class lounge.

Aside from offering immersive destination previews, Qantas will also present up-close footage of its fleet in action.

Showing Off

This isn’t just a branding opportunity for a company, but also for a country. Qantas is also poised to show off Australia’s striking natural beauty. “We are open to working with tourism groups to develop content for the program,” said  Sarah Algar, senior adviser of Corporate Communications. “Tourism NT is the first group we have worked with.”

The Gear VR rollout will last for three months, after which Qantas will assess how its passengers are responding to the experience.

In Qantas’ Gear VR press release, Adam Giles, Northern Territory’s Chief Minister and Minister for Tourism, said: “This innovation literally adds a new dimension to how visitors experience Kakadu. Tourism NT is delighted to pilot this new technology as part of its suite of marketing projects utilizing new, industry leading technology, and what better way to demonstrate the impact this VR technology can have than by showcasing Kakadu, one of the world’s most iconic ‘must do’ tourism destinations.”

The Gear VR rollout will last for three months, after which Qantas will assess how its passengers are responding to the experience. So far, said Algar, there is not plan to do any time-travel content; for example, to immerse yourself in the SYD First-Class lounge of, say, 1978.

Early Adopters

Qantas is very early to the game here, since even Samsung and Oculus themselves are not quite declaring their creation to be ready for prime-time. Samsung is pitching Gear VR as a device for “innovative consumers, specifically VR enthusiasts, developers, mobile experts and professionals, and early technology adopters.” With the mobile software development kit (SDK), Oculus implores you to build your own worlds.

(Qantas was also an early adopter of airplanes. Founded as the Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Services in 1921, Qantas is the second-oldest airline in operation behind KLM.)

If you want to get your TRON on without flying across the Pacific, you’re in luck: you can buy Samsung Gear VR for around two hundred bucks from stores such as Best Buy.

Engineering the Experience

Photo: William Litant/MIT Photograph
A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft in an MIT athletic field

This article originally appeared in The Education Issue of APEX Experience.

The last few months of 2014 saw two of the most significant anniversaries in American aviation history, but we’ll forgive you if you missed them. Both the University of Michigan (UM) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrated the centennials of their respective pioneering aerospace programs, marking 100 years of aeronautical education in the United States. Academic celebrations generally consist of speeches, forums and panels, and both universities adhered to form, with the UM’s Aero100 Weekend in mid September, followed a few weeks later by the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium. Both events brought together some of the foremost minds in academics and the industry to talk about aviation’s future, and the education that will get us there.

Now, because great academic programs are grounded in history – and no strangers to rivalry – the first question that needed answering during this historic month was: Who pioneered the study of aeronautical engineering in the United States?

There is little doubt that MIT holds court as the most influential aeronautics school in the country. Its formal history dates back to 1914, when 28-year-old Jerome Clarke Hunsaker gave what is commonly billed as “the nation’s first course in aeronautical engineering.” Though his initial stint at MIT was short – Hunsaker left in 1916 to head up the Aircraft Division at the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair, and later served as assistant vice-president and engineer at Bell Labs and vice-president at Goodyear-Zeppelin – he returned in 1933 as head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and is widely considered one of the foremost thinkers in aeronautics.

Aerospace Day at the University of Michigan
Aerospace Day at the University of Michigan

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, the story of who was first is told differently. In 1964, professor Robert Weeks published a short history of UM’s pioneering aeronautics program entitled The First Fifty Years. In it, he tells the story of colorful Polish engineer Felix Pawlowski – or “Pavvi” – who came to America hell-bent on advancing the field of aeronautical engineering. He reached out to 18 different universities with his ideas but received a few responses – among them MIT and Michigan – and only one offer of a teaching position. In addition to his 1914 class, Theory of Aviation, 30s-era Ann Arbor was also treated to the sight of the mustachioed professor patrolling campus in his souped-up Model T and swimming the Barton Dam in a bright red bathing suit.

We’ll give the last word to Jaime Peraire, current department head of the AeroAstro program at MIT, speaking in rival territory at the University of Michigan, where he quipped, “Just to dispel any confusion… you guys are the first undergraduate program. We’ll give you that; however, what happened in 1914 at MIT is that we had our first master’s program in aeronautics.” Peraire’s comments, made during a 2014 panel discussion called The Future of Aerospace Academics, were a precursor to a much broader discussion – alongside Michigan’s Alec Gallimore, Earl Dowell of Duke University, and Charbel Farhat of Stanford – covering a series of hot-button issues, including the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their role in aeronautical engineering, as well as a discussion on the bearish tendencies of university research funding.

Aboard NASA's C-9 Reduced Gravity research Program aircraft
Aboard NASA’s C-9 Reduced Gravity research Program aircraft

In a short time, MOOCs have become both magnets for institutional investment and lightning rods for heated debate among university administrators, educators and students. Speaking at MIT’s conference, Sanjay Sarma, the university’s director of Digital Learning, pointed to the 155,000 learners signed up for the very first edX course, a joint MIT and Harvard project that today offers courses such as Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering and Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics. Sarma points to the global reach of these programs, with over 2.5 million learners in 196 countries, and highlights the success story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a Mongolian teenager now at MIT following his success in an engineering MOOC.

Now, while the picture is rosy and the technology is hot, universities and venture capitalists continue to pour billions of dollars into higher-ed tech projects. There are, however, cracks beginning to appear in the model, and pointed questions being asked. Students (and parents) are wondering aloud: Why are we paying huge sums for educational content that is available for free online? Despite the lengthy presentations touting the MOOCs at both conferences, this very question was posed to a panel at MIT, and met with applause from a crowd of alumni. Meanwhile, university administrators are scrambling to make business sense of the new platforms, and educators point to the difficulties in transferring experiential learning online, particularly in fields as complex as aeronautical engineering. Gallimore holds that “because of global competition, [the industry] wants engineers who are, dare I say, shovel-ready,” and that the higher-education community at Michigan believes that this is best achieved through “engaged learning, hands-on experiential learning.” Some areas of study, like computer science, stand to make great strides with online learning, but application to fields such as medicine and aeronautical engineering isn’t so clear-cut.

“Because of global competition, the industry wants engineers who are, dare I say, shovel-ready.” – Alec Gilmore, University of Michigan

Despite the uncertainty shrouding the way forward, there is, in many, a sense that the MOOCs are here to stay. “I think the change that is happening is somewhat irreversible … and it is going to have an impact on the way that we educate in campuses, and on the way that people learn,” says Peraire. But beyond the campus effect, the broader impact is on “the hundreds of thousands of people out there who don’t have access to information [and] education.”

Back on campus, the panelists found themselves at a difficult crossroads regarding the future of research funding. Federal funding, long the lifeblood of university research, has dropped by five to seven percent and is projected as staying flat for the next 20 years, not even matching inflation rates, according to Peraire. Given the bleak outlook, industry investment has begun to play a much more prominent role in funding research. Peraire pointed at some MIT departments that are currently receiving funding support of 20-25 percent from industry, up from 10 percent just a few years ago. There is a balancing act that needs to happen, believes Peraire, so that industry doesn’t turn to universities as a means of bringing down their own cost of research. But according to Gallimore, there is no doubt that “the opportunity is industry.” Pointing to another potential opportunity, Stanford’s Farhat noted that private donors “have the opportunity to contribute on some scale that is noticeable at the scale of government [funding]; and that is probably part of the solution … if this country wants to stay where it is and keep its leading edge.”

Strikingly, it wasn’t during the education panels that the issue of passenger experience came up. Despite a growing tendency towards multidisciplinary modes of education, the hyper-focused approach to aeronautics engineering seems to leave discussion of the passenger experience outside the classroom. It was during an MIT panel entitled The Future of Air Transportation that a savvy audience member and alum asked, “Who is it that is responsible for that total experience in terms of the educational system, and if the answer is nobody, how can we expect to see an integrated, systemic change in the passenger experience?”

The approach to aeronautics engineering seems to leave discussion of the passenger experience outside the classroom.

The question is no doubt complex: The technical challenges of the aircraft are daunting, the technology is in constant flux, who has time for experience? Or perhaps the view is that in terms of experience, the scope of engineering is limited to comfort. Certainly, Recaro engineers should be celebrated for winning the German Design Award 2015 for their CL6710 business seat, an award announced fours days after the MIT conference. So, the question remains, how are the premier educational institutions looking at passenger experience?

William Litant, director of communications at MIT’s AeroAstro Program, points out that in 1997 the program completely rethought its approach to an engineering education, “creating a syllabus for engineering education that’s now in place in over 100 universities around the world.” The CDIO Initiative (Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate) was born in Cambridge and has looked to return engineers to the “hands-on” approach to learning.

Speaking at the panel, R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, pointed at a “holistic class on airline management that attempts to look at all of the aspects” of the passenger experience. He also mentioned a recent initiative at the university, Transportation@MIT, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to the major transportation issues of the future, particularly in terms of sustainability. He points at MIT and UCal Berkeley as the leaders in this kind of thinking, but concedes that is often neglected. Echoing a discussion his colleagues made in Ann Arbor, he underlines that “it’s often hard to get people to fund research that is cross-modal.”

With IATA projecting 16 billion passengers aboard flights in 2050, it seems that passenger experience should be understood beyond comfort, and not solely as a management issue… it needs engineering.

View the AeroAstro Centennial video lectures here.

MIT Software Could Help Travelers Assess Risk

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 1.38.28 PM
MIT’s Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) model

The human brain is amazing. It can assess situations and come up with solutions in ways that would make a computer jealous. So it should be no surprise that a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on algorithms that emulate our analytical thought processes.

Professor Brian Williams, of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) laboratory, says that the Boeing Company is helping to fund the research, which began as a concept study of Personal Air Vehicles (PAV’s). Think of the ultimate flying car, or taxi, and you get the idea. “There’s lots of enthusiasm for the idea, and we don’t want to need certified pilots. It would be a robotic air taxi, and we’re trying to build a system that we can talk to,” says Williams.

The algorithm and resulting software could have wide application in airline operations, including gate allocations, airport ground movements and flight-path planning.

Getting into your PAV, you would tell it to “take me home, but I want to stop for dinner at a sit-down restaurant, and arrive by 7 p.m.”  Now given the specific constraints of the task, the PAV’s software would evaluate weather, navigation, vehicle system status, the database of available restaurants and all other necessary parameters before proposing a solution. The software might suggest a restaurant, or it might say “there isn’t time for a sit-down restaurant if you want to be home at 7 p.m. I suggest going to a ‘fly-through,’ and here’s two on our route.”

The unique component of this algorithm is that it assesses risk, in the sense that it evaluates the probability of success of a solution that’s based on the applied constraints. Your GPS doesn’t do that. If the user doesn’t like an initial solution, the software evaluates and proposes options until a high probability solution is accepted.

For today’s airline passenger, the software might be used to figure out flight bookings. “A passenger would say ‘I’m taking the hourly shuttle flight, but I hate turbulence. I need to eat. What flight should I book, and what time should I leave the office?’” says Williams.  “The software would work through a whole set of outcomes, to determine the best solution.”

Sound like science-fiction? Perhaps. But Williams’ group has named the algorithm and software “Enterprise.” And each module is named appropriately. “Uhuru handles the dialogue, Sulu flies the PAV, Bones is diagnosis, and Kirk is in charge of overall planning. He’s smarter than the older module, Pike,” chuckles Williams.

Williams, who is also a Professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, adds that the algorithm and resulting software could have wide application in airline operations, including gate allocations, airport ground movements, and flight-path planning.

APEX Hollywood Shortlist: American Sniper Makes History (again!) as Birdman Feathers its Nest with Award Season Kudos

Strange Magic, Walt Disney Pictures
Strange Magic, Walt Disney Pictures

Making history yet again, Warner Brothers’ runaway smash American Sniper crossed the $200M mark at the box office over the weekend to become the second highest grossing war film in Hollywood history behind Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks), which topped out with $216M in 1998. Armed with six Oscar nominations and a rock steady perch at the top of the box office for the second weekend in a row with $64.6M, Sniper should easily surpass Ryan in the next few days to become the top grossing war film of all time.

Steaming up the windows in the second spot at the weekend box office was the Jennifer Lopez erotic thriller The Boy Next Door (Universal) which opened with $14.9M. Despite featuring a stellar cast of voice talents (including Tony winners Alan Cumming, and Kristen Chenoweth) and a story from the mind of George Lucas, the Force was not strong with Disney’s animated fable Strange Magic – opening in seventh place with $5.5M. Johnny Depp’s Mortdecai (Lionsgate) also struggled to finagle his way to the top of the office, opening in ninth place with a 4.2M haul.

The Boy Next Door
The Boy Next Door, Universal

And in a weekend that saw audiences seeking out smaller, Academy Award-nominated films in droves, Fox Searchlight’s Birdman soared to the top of the Oscar flock by scoring some major award season brass.

After trading trophies with IFC’s Boyhood for most of the season, Birdman jetted past Richard Linklater’s sentimental favorite to take top honors at the Producers Guild of America (PGA) awards on Saturday night and the award for Best Ensemble Cast at Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards. To put these wins in perspective, the winner of the PGA’s top prize have gone on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 18 of the past 25 years. And though the correlation between Best Ensemble Cast wins at the SAG awards and Best Picture winners at the Oscars is a less reliable indicator (winners have matched up only nine times in 19 years), Birdman’s guild victories will definitely improve their odds come Oscar time. And with the Directors and Writers guilds set to weigh in with their winners in the next two weeks, it really is anyone’s game this season.

Unless your name is J.K. Simmons. The Whiplash star has won every major award he’s been nominated for, so, seriously, just hand the dude an Oscar already.

As IFC Technology Advances, Gogo Preps to Set New Records

800x450_Air_to_ground-+general+signal

Gogo is on track for record installs in 2015, with these planned installs helping the company reach 2,600 equipped aircraft by year end – 25 percent of those installs on international aircraft. Gogo will also upgrade more than a third of its installed ATG systems to NextGen ATG-4 technology, tripling peak speeds to the aircraft and increasing capacity.

“Operationally, what the talented group at Gogo has accomplished and is set to accomplish in 2015 is unprecedented in this industry and continues to amaze me,” said Gogo’s president and CEO, Michael Small. “Between installing new service and upgrading our original ATG service to ATG-4, our installation team expects to touch 1,000 aircraft in various parts of the world in 2015. We are excited about where we are going in terms of bringing new aircraft online and adding significantly more capacity to the network.”

As passenger demand for IFC grows, the industry has responded with advanced technologies.

800x450_Inflight_Texting-Passenger

A recently published study by Routehappy shows the industry is progressing. Gogo’s own close partnership with Delta earned the airline kudos from Routehappy for offering “the most flights and flight miles with Wi-Fi of all airlines by far.”

“Our installation team expects to touch 1,000 aircraft in various parts of the world in 2015.” –Michael Small, Gogo’s president and CEO.

But the Routehappy study also highlights the work ahead. While 24 percent of the world’s passengers can now expect to find some Wi-Fi service onboard, the world still lags behind the US, where the probability of finding Wi-Fi in-flight is 66 percent. The study also points to a need for improved performance: 38 percent of connections rated as “Better Wi-Fi” and 1 percent as “Best Wi-Fi.”

To address this need for speed, Gogo has invested in the development of its revolutionary 2Ku dual antenna technology – for which it recently received blanket FCC approval. The specially designed shallow antenna reduces drag and avoids risks from birdstrikes, while delivering bandwidth peak capacity up to 70Mbps, 20 times faster than Gogo’s original ATG service.

“2Ku will bring significantly more bandwidth at what we estimate will be half the costs of competing solutions available in the market today,” added Small. “We believe this technology is transformative for global aviation in terms of Internet speeds, capacity, coverage, costs and reliability.”