Coffee, tea or VR? In-flight entertainment gets virtual

Qantas virtual reality headsets to be tested on some A380 flights
Source: Qantas
Qantas virtual reality headsets to be tested on some A380 flights

On your next international flight, you may want to forget the screen on the back seat and lose your tablet device.

In an in-flight entertainment first, Australian carrier Qantas will soon be making Samsung's virtual reality headsets, called Gear VR, available to premium passengers on some long-distance flights. A three-month trial run begins in mid-March, when Qantas is expected to make the headsets available to first-class passengers on some of the airline's A380 flights between Australia and Los Angeles.

Visitors to Qantas first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne have already received headsets to test.

Eventually, Qantas says the VR technology "will transport customers to an immersive virtual world … and showcase the sights and delights of network destinations, new Qantas products and the latest in-flight blockbuster movies."

Read MoreIt's not just Facebook and Google chasing virtual reality

For the trial, however, Qantas is just giving passengers an appetizer menu. The company will offer a virtual reality sampler of short features, or "vignettes," filmed in Australia and produced by Palo Alto-based technology company Jaunt. The limited run has a playlist that allows headset-wearers to watch a Qantas airplane take off and land. Other stops include a visit to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, a Qantas airport lounge and Kakadu, Australia's largest national park.

"Travel and VR make a natural pair," said Jaunt CEO Jens Christensen. So adding virtual reality options to the in-flight experience seems like a logical next step.

"We've gone from no in-flight entertainment, to one drop-down screen, then screens in the seats, and now personal screens," said Christensen.

"VR is the next step on the evolutionary scale," he added. "Instead of a limited-size screen, a passenger is transported to a new location."

That's appealing if the technology is someday used to "virtually transport economy-class passengers in ultra-tight seating … to other more spacious 'realities' outside of the metal tube," said Mary Kirby, founder of the Runway Girl Network.


Qantas Samsung VR headsets to be trialed on some long-haul flights
Source: Qantas
Qantas Samsung VR headsets to be trialed on some long-haul flights

Still, that may be just wishful thinking for now. Widespread adoption by airlines "appears unlikely now" due in part to the high costs associated with the headsets and their handling, she added.

Another concern is making passengers sick. For some passengers, visual stimulants like VR sometimes trigger side-effects like vertigo, nausea and—in the more extreme cases—seizures.

"I think putting any device that simulates motion into something that is already moving will guarantee those air sickness bags won't just be used for scribbling notes," said Frank Catalano, a tech industry consultant and a columnist at GeekWire.

The stationary filming techniques used in the Qantas VR vignettes should help, said Jaunt's Christensen, "When you're in our environments, you're stable. We found that eliminates the nausea."

But what if the virtual reality experience is too good? Will travelers no longer need to actually go to the places they've "visited" during their flights?

"We think by transporting our customers to the immersive virtual worlds of destinations that [they] have never seen, the VR Gear will actually inspire our customers to travel more," said Olivia Wirth, a Qantas executive for marketing and corporate affairs, via email.

Catalano, a frequent traveler, agreed. "You simply can't replicate the smells, the tastes, the serendipitous discoveries, the off-handed casual conversations with locals, the immersion into a new and different culture," he said. "All virtual reality can do is stimulate the appetite for the real thing."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.